Picking the best album of the year is a daunting task. Every year hundreds of thousands of people strum, hum, clink, and blurt. They heave and sigh over past loves, new experiences, and the beauty of the world around them. They wrestle with the difficulties of life and bleed them for us. These songwriters, these troubadours, heroes all, help us make sense of this temporal existence. We salute them. These are some of my favorites this year.
10) Vintage Talk – Self Titled
-Click play and then listen to the first fifteen seconds. Now, ready? This is a debut album. Astonishing, isn’t it? This superb album is quintessential folk music. I fully expect Vintage Talk to become a household name in the folk world along with acts like Mandolin Orange and Planes on Paper. The easy acoustic style and flavorful vocals work together impeccably. To throw out a few other comparisons, I find their harmonies like Darlingside (high praise!) and overall style like St. Paul de Vence (another perennial favorite). Although I put them at 10 overall, it’s safe to say this is one of my favorite new band finds of 2016. I will follow their career closely.
9) John Paul White – Beulah
-John Paul White used to be in a band that won him some Grammys. But it also allowed him to grow as a songwriter, making him into a writing force. This album, Beulah, is cathartic for JPW. You can hear his heart pouring out in songs about life, love, and music. He clearly deals in the depths of complicated life. He’s an inspiration. The style is fundamentally acoustic, but this is not your grandpa’s folk or roots music. Okay, well, it’s certainly inspired by grandpa’s music though. Take some of the spirit of Appalachian music, add in some rock attitude, and some hymn-writer’s sincerity; it’s sometimes dark, always thoughtful. The “don’t get above your raisin'” lyric on “What’s So” is one of the best lines in music this year. If you only have time for one, listen to “Once and Future Queen.”
8) Sara Watkins – Young in All the Wrong Ways
-This is a lovely album from one of the three powerful artists in Nickel Creek. Actually, at this point it may not even be fair to tether Watkins to her former band. She stands alone in Americana and bluegrass circles for phenomenal performances of her own. I always mention her vocals when I write about her because she’s just so good at what she does. I haven’t heard very many artists who are so good at just singing with their natural voice trying to be theatrical. Watkins brings in elements of country, sure, but also rock and even blues on this album. The lyrics hit hard, sometimes melting and sometimes just conjuring a gripping nostalgia that makes me stop in my tracks.
7) Bear’s Den – Red Earth and Pouring Rain
-If you follow my posts on the ETTG Twitter feed (@EarToThe_Ground), you’ve heard me lamenting the massive return of 80s sounds in music. It’s everywhere. But honestly, some bands can make it work. From the opening of the album you can hear some pretty glorious synth work, but it works! I like the cool harmonies and nice grooves through this full indie rock album. I used to consider Bear’s Den more of a folk band, but this album has a lot of rock elements. This is the kind of album you can put on while you study or work and it is great backdrop, or you can really sink your teeth into it and understand each carefully crafted line. If you like them already, start with “Broken Parable.”
6) Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
-I’ll be honest; the jury was out on this album for me until about two months ago when I heard the story behind it. I thought maybe Simpson was having one of those weird artist freakouts feeling like he needed to “change his sound” for the sake of changing it. But no, in typical Sturgill fashion he wrote this album for the most inspired reason ever – as a celebration of life for his newborn son. It was a game changer for how I heard the music. It’s so easy to compare him to country greats like Waylon Jennings, but here on Sailor’s you’ll hear all sorts of influences including blues and funk. I absolutely love what this album communicates and the all-out style he has. No punches were pulled in the production of this cinematic, Americana masterpiece. I’d sleep well at night making this my number one album of the year.
5) Brent Cobb – Shine on Rainy Day
-When I reviewed this album, I said that it was the best country album of 2016. I still think that’s the case and it was almost the best overall album of 2016. Cobb is a John Denver style singer songwriter who can help us better understand the world. If you make it out of the first minute of this album without smiling, I’d be really surprised. The man can write a melody, a hook, and that sweet country charm. I really enjoy several of the songs on this album. The title track is definitely a hit, but “Diggin’ Holes” hits me pretty hard emotionally given my own family and story. But there are no skip tracks here. I love this album.
4) Matthew Mayfield – Recoil
-Call it folk or just plain rock, but Matthew Mayfield is one of the best singer songwriters in music today. His ability to write with heart is powerful and transcendent. If you read my review of this album, you knew it would be on this list. From the opening riff of “History,” through the end of the album, there’s a consistent theme of wrestling with demons and coping with the past. I love that about his songwriting and overall style. Mayfield is an impressive artist all the time, but this might be his best album to date. Both “History” and “God’s Fault” are tracks you simply cannot skip. Go listen to them right now.
3) Mandolin Orange – Blindfaller
-I have a really hard time ranking Mandolin Orange. They are so exceptionally talented, it’s familiar. I almost take them for granted. I put them on the list and then go back and listen again and think… WOW! I can’t tell you how many times they’ve made me say “wow.” The male-female duo harmonies continue to be stunning to me. There might be other bands with “bigger” sounds with more instruments and voices, but you won’t find anyone with a purer sound. They have the incredible ability to write a convicting line that goes down smooth, like fine whisky. On this album, “Wildfire” is about as heartbreaking as it gets. I’d listen to the whole thing. Make your drink first because you won’t want to leave the room once the music starts.
2) The Head and the Heart – Signs of Light
-There are albums you like because they are really good, then there are albums you like because you probably can’t live without them. I am not sure I could have lived 2016 without this album. I mean sure I could survive, but I would not have enjoyed it as much. This album is one of the most inspiring, consistently-moving parts of my year. I listened to it dozens of times while working or just living my life. It’s infectiously enjoyable pop folk music. You can put it on with your kids in the room, feel inspired to work or read or think or dream or just have a dance party. There are dance grooves, thoughtful lyrics, and plenty of inspiring moments on this album. “All We Ever Knew” and “Signs of Light” are both must hear tracks.
1) Joe Purdy – Who Will Be Next?
-If you are a fan of folk music, you have to know this album. I mean… this is one of the best albums of the DECADE, let alone the year. Seriously Joe Purdy is outstanding, but he has proven himself prophetic and wise with this album. The lines are carefully crafted and often poetic. The melodies are nostalgic, rewarding, and seemingly endless in their creative variety. The songs might be a bit too political for some, but honestly it’s a folk singer commenting on endless war, government corruption, and poverty. It’s the quintessential folk album for 2016. I love everything about it. “Cursin’ Air” was my song of the year, so obviously you need to hear it. The whole album is great, but you really need to hear “Children of Privilege” and “Maybe We’ll All Get Along Someday” before the year is over. This is a beautiful, inspiring, ultimately hopeful album.