5. Aaron Gillespie – Out of the Badlands
Recently, Aaron Gillespie released an album that is a voice crying out from the wilderness. Gillespie, who you may know from Underoath and The Almost, dropped one of the more personal albums we have came across this year. Fresh off what he described as “a tumultuous time of life turned upside down” the artist went deeper into his craft for a collection of reworked past releases, covers, and originals to convey where he was. It is difficult for a musician to have an album full of previously recording songs that tie together with where he or she is at that particular time in their career, but Gillespie does it masterfully and in a surprisingly personal way. Vulnerable and raw, Out of the Badlands could be his most honest work in his nearly two-decade career.
Gillespie’s take on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” gained us a deeper respect for her songwriting as well as his ability to make the song his own. Every line plays out in a highly relatable and heartbreaking way. He sways between a whisper and his patented emo style scream. The originals are outstanding and raw. “When everything you have is taken away, like a lie on your wedding day” Gillespie sings on “Raspberry Layer Cake” which he says is the “most honest song I’ve ever written . . .and I won’t talk about it”. We respect that ambiguity, but it is still transparent and heartbreaking. The album ends with the outstanding “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” which is a rock piece that will convince you to sing along with the phenomenal guitar playing and traditional rock vocals of the artist. It might be the most “produced” song on the album, but it is a near perfect exploration of a relationship imploding. With that said, the production, done by Gillespie as well, is minimal. “The production shows where I was at the time. I didn’t need any noise in my life, I didn’t need anything fake. There’s no programming,” Aaron explains. “I did it all myself. It’s as naked as I could get it to be. It’s raw and honest – it’s what I sound like at my worst, with a broken heart.”
4. Brian Fallon – Painkillers
Is there another artist who can capture youth and longing the way Brian Fallon can? Yeah, okay, Springsteen does a pretty good job but he has had a few more decades to play with. The perpetual troubadour Fallon released his first solo album since breaking from the shamefully underappreciated The Gaslight Anthem and man does it show both maturity and heartbreak. While the songs are uniquely Fallon, they are a refreshing break from his former more exuberant act and closer to the album he did with The Horrible Crowes. The lead single, “A Wonderful Life”, balances his melancholy with the hope of more. “I want a life on fire / going mad with desire / I don’t want to survive / I want a wonderful life” sings the artist and is guaranteed to stick in your head long after. “Steve McQueen” is a throwback song of a man looking back with a sort of stubborn heartbreak. “Red Lights” is more upbeat and fun with a old country flavor mixed in. A song about traffic lights and nightmare stopping pills, its content fits right into the country genre.
Painkillers was easily a favorite album of mine this year but if you are looking for The Gaslight Anthem, you might be surprised. It is a deeper exploration of the artist while still having the fun and intentional sounds that made them so popular. This is one of those few albums that anybody can listen to, regardless of preference, and find something to enjoy.
3. Lake Street Dive – Side Pony
I admit, I was a little bit late to the band but with their 2016 release, I was won over without hesitation. Every one of the 12 tracks is fun, soulful, and incredibly crafted. While the band has been around over a decade, they truly turned heads with their 2014 release Bad Self Portraits. The mojo gained from that release is fully present on Side Pony. The incredibly talented band blends jazz, soul, and ‘70’s funk with seamless ability while still making an intelligent pop album. It is at once a throwback and a ode to a new sound the world longs for. Fans like me who failed to catch on to their sound back in ’14 were sure to take notice with this latest release. The tours have gotten bigger, the tickets have got scarcer, and their sound has become greater. Lake Street Dive are everything great about music. Their sound is exactly what 2016 needed.
2. The Avett Brothers – True Sadness
Much has been said and written about the new album from The Avett Brothers. The folky friends of mine found the unexpected new direction of their sound a bit off-putting. They couldn’t get behind it. The same witty and deep everyman lyrics are present, but the sound and structure are new. Many who loved the new album stated that their last few releases have been similar and were getting stale.
No matter how you feel about the band, this album is pretty damn good. It takes the band to a new space and asks the pertinent questions that 2016 demanded be answered. We see a prime example of this in the thought provoking title track “True Sadness” as well as the gut wrenching “No Hard Feelings” which comes complete with a beautifully nostalgic music video. The same band that made you fall in love with them is still present in carefree jams such as “Ain’t No Man” and “Satan Pulls the Strings”. Both mix their patented fun folk sound with their clever and deep songwriting. This is some of the best lyrics we have heard from the guys in quite awhile and is on par with any previous release.
1. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
What can I say about this album that has not previously been stated by the countless reviewers who have placed this at the top of their own year-end lists? 2016 was a watershed year for indie rock. In a lot of ways, this genre – whatever it has been defined as – has became mainstream at best and a caricature at worst. Either way, we saw a lot of rock bands who tried to sound “indie” and failed miserably. Teens of Denial was able to break away from this as well as show how creative rock can still be without going too far into prog rock. The lo-fi sound of Will Toledo captured audiences from diverse backgrounds without pandering to the mainstream or radio stations. This is the definition of college rock and will be looked at years from now as an all-time great album in an otherwise strange time for rock music. While his first release on Matador records, Toledo has dropped numerous songs by himself through humble recording methods.
Devoid of pretension, Teens of Denial covers some interesting and deep topics for the young songwriter. Many of the references revolve around drinking, like “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, and growing up under the American Dream like “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”. “Fill in the Blank” is probably the most straightforward jam and is sure to make listeners swoon and is just now finding itself on popular radio stations. It is a definite burner of a track. Melancholy could be used to describe the tracks on the album but there is a strange sense of hope and perseverance throughout the album’s interesting narrative.
We understand how this goes. An act releases an album that exceeds all expectations finding the way to many different hearts of that year. Then the next album is released and fails. Unfortunately, this happens more times than not. The difference between that story and the story of Car Seat Headrest is that in this case, it does not matter. Teens of Denial is a stand-alone album that captures the ethos of 2016 and is sure to be timeless. Anything we get from the prolific Toledo from here on out will be a bonus.