For me, 2016 has been a very historic and surprising year. The Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in over one hundred years (beating the Cleveland Indians in the tenth inning of Game 7), the Cleveland Cavaliers won their first NBA Championship ever, the Cleveland Browns have yet to win a single game this season, and the United States elected a new president with no political experience, leaving the majority of political pollsters and pundits in utter disbelief.
In the world of music 2016 has been marked by sadness, as we said goodbye to three legends: David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen. But it’s also been a year of creativity and prosperity as Bruce Springsteen published an autobiography, Beyonce made Lemonade, and Guns ‘N’ Roses reunited and secured a comfortable retirement with their #NotInThisLifetime world tour.
2016 has also been an exceptionally fruitful time for singer-songwriters, which is the genre of music that I’ve enjoyed most this year. And I gather that such is the case because in an election year filled with twenty-four hour news, a constant cacophony of talking-heads, and endless political debate, listening to men and women who are artistic masters of marrying thoughtful words and sober music brought me great comfort, consolation, inspiration, and joy. My hope and prayer is that this list of my favorite albums of 2016 will do the same for you.
1. Remember Us To Life – Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor is hard not to like. This Russian immigrant of devout Jewish parents has been living in the United States since she was nine years old and has been making music most of her life. Unlike many secular artists today, she’s not embarrassed, afraid or ashamed to discuss faith and religion and naturally pulls such themes into her work. The opening track, “Bleeding Heart” seems to be everyone’s favorite, especially for the way the song resolves in the final minute or so. But my favorite tracks are the fantastical “Grand Hotel”, the assuring “The Light” and the lovely “The Visit.” When I first listened to this album it sounded like Spektor was smiling a lot as she was singing, and I when I checked her out on YouTube I realized that she was. She’ll make you smile too.
2. You Want It Darker – Leonard Cohen
When Leonard Cohen died I wrote his name into the ‘prayers for the deceased’ at all the Sunday parish liturgies that I celebrated that weekend. Like Spektor, Cohen was raised Jewish, but he had a great respect for Christianity, particularly Catholic Christianity, as he was raised in Montreal. You Want It Darker was released only a few weeks before Cohen’s death, and you can tell on all nine tracks that Cohen knew that he wasn’t long for this world. On the title track he even says so in Hebrew, “Hineni Hineni” (“Here I am”) and in English, “I’m ready, my Lord”. A few years ago one of my priest friends said that when Cohen dies and meets the Christ face to face, he’ll recognize Him. I think he’s right. So turn down the lights down and turn up bass and enjoy this wonderful collection of songs. And offer a prayer for Cohen and his family while you’re at it.
3. Champion – Alanna Boudreau
Two years ago I was delighted by Boudreau’s first record, Hints & Guesses, as it took the number ten slot on my Top Ten list of 2014. In 2016 Champion is my surprise album of the year. Not many people have heard of Boudreau, and I hope that changes soon, because this young artist (who also happens to be a devout Catholic) is a powerhouse of talent, both in her songwriting and musical arrangements. To my mind and ears, the best tracks are “Champion,” “PEM” and “Petros,” but the whole album is great. Keep an eye on this one; she’s got a very bright future. (Click here for my review of Champion.)
4. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter – Margo Price
I first heard Margo Price when she performed earlier this year on Saturday Night Live. It’s not common for SNL to welcome country acts as musical guests, so when Price came out in her long black dress and twangy yet powerfully feminine and soulful voice, I became an instant fan. Price has an authentic old-school sound and she’s a deft songwriter, although I should warn you than her stories can get rather dark. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is a ten-song collection of mostly breakup songs, but all they’re really good. “Four Years of Chances” is my favorite for all sorts of reasons, but the math may be the most important one.
5. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price have a lot in common. They’re both young, but the style of country music they play is old: they are the antithesis of pop-country and bro-country. Sailor’s Guide is Simpson’s sophomore effort and it’s a concept album, as he’d become a father since his first album and many of the tracks on this record are reflections on fatherhood, particularly “Welcome to Earth,” “Keep It Between the Lines” and “All Around You.” Simpson’s rich bass voice gives a whole new rendering to Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and “Call to Arms” will make you want to dance. Even if you don’t like country music, you’ll still like Sturgill Simpson.
6. Inheritance – Audrey Assad
Few artists can record an album full of covers and make it a great record. Cat Power (Jukebox) and Ryan Adams (1989) have done it in the past and Audrey Assad did it in 2016 on Inheritance. Granted, there are two originals tracks which Assad co-wrote with Matt Maher on this album, but the nine other tracks are traditional hymns that Assad has masterfully re-presented as only she can. On a personal note, I buried my dad in early summer. As he was dying, I would keep vigil at the nursing home and the serene sounds of Inheritance brought my dad and me great comfort. I reviewed Inheritance in its entirety earlier this year. You can read it here.
7. Life in the Dark – The Felice Brothers
I first heard The Felice Brothers when they opened for Bright Eyes back in 2007. I’ve been listening to them ever since, and they’ve given me a lot to listen to, as they put out a new record just about every year. This Americana band from the Catskills has a gritty, barroom sound that is accompanied by lyrics that are sometimes thoughtful and socially conscious, other times prophetic, and occasionally nonsensical. But, The Felice Brothers are a fun band, and Life in the Dark is a solid record. “Plunder” and “Sally” will wake you up, and don’t miss the best song, hidden after what you think is the end of the record. Wait for it.
8. The Ghosts of Highway 20 – Lucinda Williams
Speaking of prolific songwriters, Lucinda Williams released a double album this year that has kept me great company on long drives. Williams is a big fan of Flannery O’Connor, and O’Connor’s ability ‘to show and not tell’ is forever evident in Williams’ songwriting. She also has one of those voices in which you believe everything that she sings. Williams covers Springsteen’s “Factory” on Highway 20, but the very best track is “Faith & Grace,” which clocks in at almost thirteen minutes.
9. The Very Last Day – Parker Millsap
In 2014 Parker Millsap’s self-titled album topped my list. This singer-songwriter from Oklahoma recorded another religiously charged album in 2016, although one is never really sure what Millsap actually believes. However, this former Pentecostal tells great stories and sings like he’s been around for a long time, even though he’s only twenty-three. “The Very Last Day” and “Tribulation Hymn” are excellent, but Millsap’s ability to write in character on “Heaven Sent” will floor you.
10. Joanne – Lady Gaga
Truth be told, I haven’t historically been a big fan of Lady Gaga’s music. But, truth be told again, I have a thing for musicians who are Catholic, whether or not they continue to practice their faith. As the saying goes, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Lady Gaga’s real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, and you can see a picture of her ID from Mother Seton High School within the liner notes of this album. Although the lyrics of “A-Yo” are morally offensive, the beat is pretty solid, reminiscent of “Hey Mickey” and “Shake It Off.” I just pray that the song isn’t autobiographical or that, at the very least, it’s satirical. Gaga was engaged to be married, but that relationship ended and so there’s some serious heartache on this record, especially on “Million Reasons.” In an interview with Sunday Morning on CBS, Gaga said, “Women love very hard… sometimes that love isn’t met with the type of dignity we wish it were met with.” Christopher West will be quoting her soon if he isn’t already. Gaga also has some great things to say about ‘fathers’ and ‘real success’ on that Sunday Morning interview that might surprise you. In February Lady Gaga will play the Super Bowl halftime show. Let’s keep her in prayer.