It’s such an exciting experience for bloggers to look back on a year of great music. Where the song of the year list is largely idiosyncratic and based on a specific track “hitting me” uniquely, I find the album list is much more about a total body of work. These are the albums that spoke to me through multiple tracks and connected with a mood appropriate for the year.
10) Jesse Daniel – Self Titled
-The first song I heard from this album was “The Banker,” an authentic country track that smacks you right between the eyes with the old school. After finding that one, I had to hear the rest of this young fella’s work. I was duly impressed with his collection of old timer’s tales about life, love, and losin’. It’s vintage country music from start to finish. If you only have time for one, I’d make it “The Banker” or “Soft Spot (for the Hard Stuff).” Fans of the Charlie Daniels brand of country music MUST listen to this album.
9) The Milk Carton Kids – All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do
-We’re obliged to include these guys on every list because they gave us a few interviews in the early days of their career. But beyond that, this is honestly a fascinating album. It takes a special kind of artist to evolve without fully moving out of the sound that made them known. I remember reading a review that ridiculed them for being “too much like” Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – this album, I think, puts that comparison to rest. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan have certainly carved out their own sound. Just look at them now. Two brilliant folk composers finally have access to a major production suite; every track has top quality production and it really works. The closer “All the Things…” is probably the top for me, but they’re all good in their own.
8) Rusty Clanton – Big Bear, Little Bear
-Followers of my writing and curation over the years know that I love Rusty Clanton’s work. He’s in that top echelon of songwriters right now that I will go out of my way to hear everything. This album is stunning to me for its seeming juxtaposition of simple feeling songs that have these incredibly complex chord changes and harmony structures. Clanton continues to channel the Brian Wilson and Matthew Thiessen combination in his compositions – with a dash of modern Nashville – for a sound that I often describe as breathtaking. Both “Married in the Morning” and “False Start” are worth your time to get a sense of Clanton’s depth and style.
7) Jesse Brown – Sadness
-I don’t know if there are rules to a list like this, but if there were people would say you can’t put an instrumental neoclassical album on it. But I did because I’m a rebel and Jesse Brown is an incredible artist. I heard some of his music earlier this year and was absolutely awestruck by his use of pauses and space. If you read my musings on music, you know that I love good phrasing. Brown masters this. I love listening to this album while reading, writing, or merely meditating. If there is justice in the world, I will get to meet this incredible artist and thank him personally for his work. If you only have time for one, make it “Room for One More.”
6) St Pete Holland – Seven Deadly Hymns
-Irreverance fascinates me. Full stop. So when someone combines irreverance with pop folk music, consider me interested. Add a layer of OUT OF THIS WORLD great performance and I can’t help but sink my heart and soul into it. SPH have probably been the biggest “surprise new artist” for me this year. It’s a sound that I didn’t know I needed in my life but I dooooooooo and now I can’t quit it. The lead vocal soars, the lyrics are snazzy, and the production is top notch. If you only have time for one, “Lullaby” is my favorite reflective piece, while “Leslie Likes It Loud” is appropriately a good time.
5) Elizabeth Gundersen – Elephant Heart
-The first time I heard the work of Elizabeth “Lizzy” Gundersen was as half of the sibling band Le Wrens. I knew her, of course, as the sister of Noah Gundersen. But I’ll tell you – one listen of the first track of Elephant Heart and I knew that she was so much more than the sister of ANYONE. Her country and folk songwriting chops are absolutely stunning. I love her almost-gospel like sensibilities in her melodies. The phrasing of each line feels poetic and often hard hitting. It’s hard to find a comparison for Gundersen’s songwriting because there’s really no one in the country world writing like this currently. The timelessness of her songs, namely “Elephant Heart” and “Precious Wine” deserve exponentially more playtime and coverage.
4) Dawn and Hawkes – The Other Side
-This folk duo continues to fill my heart with joy. I’ve listened to this album more than I can count. It’s such a joyful expression of humanity. The harmonies win me over every time, but the thoughtful lyrics have me coming back for more. The sound is definitely folk, but has shades of all sorts of other Americana styles too including country, blues, and rock. If you want to get a sense of their overall sound, try “Ordinary Day.” My personal favorites are “Stardust” and “Promised Land.”
3) Matthew Thiessen and the Earthquakes – Wind Up Bird
-One of my favorite bands of all time is Thiessen’s Relient K, so when I found out about this “other band” I was thrilled. The album did not disappoint. I can see why these songs deserved their own project; they explore other textures of Thiessen’s songwriting palate. The Beach Boys harmonies and intricate chord changes are still there, but it has more of a pop rock sensibility rather than the more punk style of Relient K. I really appreciate the hook-y track “Forest,” but really there are half a dozen killer tracks on this album. It could have easily been album of the year for me.
2) Darlingside – Extralife
-I have been following Darlingside for a few years, but this album puts them on another level. They went from a quirky indie folk band to a force. I love the complexity throughout this album, from the harmonies that roll and connect in diverse structures, to the captivating and curious lyricism. I’ve never heard anything like this album, but every time I put it on I stay for the whole thing. It pulls you in with seemingly supernatural force. I love both “Hold Your Head Up High” and “Eschaton” but honestly it’s a “sit down and listen to the whole thing” album – and one of the sincere best of the year.
1)Jeremy Messersmith – Late Stage Capitalism
-Buckle up for this one, friends. Messersmith has written a modern masterpiece. If you remember my comments on previous year end lists with artists like Joe Purdy, Messersmith fits in that same category. The music is at the absolute highest level of production and packs a powerful lyrical punch. I adore that his sometimes-snarky delivery comes across with more of a Ben Folds snappiness rather than a mockery of the world. His sincerity comes through in Beach Boys harmonies and up tempo compositions that ultimately discuss the dire state of the world. I don’t know how others in the world receive this, but for some of us here in the United States this is a much-needed salve for the current political and social climate. I like the whole album, but “Happy” and “Fireflower” are modern classics that I will be revisiting often.