Happy New Year! Peace and love to everyone.
This years Rambling On Albums of 2016 includes some favorites and many surprises. Each album is definitely worth checking out, so be sure to support the artists by buying their work.
Thanks a lot for reading. From all of us at Rambling On, Happy New Year! We love you all.
We’re going to start with #1, because if you only get through a few at least you’ll hit the best ones.
1. David Bowie – Blackstar
Far too many creators, innovators, and talented men and women who touched our lives in important ways died in 2016. It all started with David Bowie, who died a mere two days after the release of his final album Blackstar in January. For me, it didn’t get any worse than losing Bowie, my childhood hero and one of my biggest musical influences.
Fortunately he left us a final love letter in Blackstar that worthily stands with his best work. It’s a classic David Bowie album: the melodies are strong, his voice soars, and the songs are intense, mature, and innovative without losing the pop sensibilities that Bowie always excelled at.
Blackstar is a fitting parting gift from one of the most important creators of the 20th century.
2. Mark Mallman – The End is Not the End
Minnesota songwriter Mark Mallman’s 2016 release The End is not the End has everything: big, catchy pop/rock songs, boundless energy, emotional and philosophical depth, and ingeniously clever lyrics. Written following the death of his mother, Mallman has taken his grief and channeled it into the best, most emotionally charged songs of his career (“Hole in the Night,” “The End is Not the End,” “Soul Pressure”). “Parasite Eyes,” “Terrified,” and “Monster Movies” have a slightly more industrial feel although they lose none of their catchy pop edge. Effortless, melodic “H.R.H.” and “Let it Shine” show how much Mallman’s songwriting has matured.
With The End is not the End Mark Mallman has crafted about as close as you can get to the perfect pop/rock album.
3. Wilco – Shcmilco
I understand that Jeff Tweedy doesn’t want to be bogged down by trying too hard (see: A Moon Shaped Pool, the majority of contemporary indie music). Today it’s very easy for bands to get a little too full of themselves, and as a creative person he doesn’t want to fall into that trap.
It’s a shame, though, because the last two Wilco albums have been stunning in their understated beauty, yet you’d never know it by their titles (Star Wars and Schmilco) or their ridiculous album covers. If Tweedy would have allowed himself to take things a bit more seriously, together these two difficult, intensely creative albums could have been their strongest artistic statement since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
As it is, Scmilco is an emotional return to form for a band that had been floundering creatively for years. It’s the best of everything the band has been since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: layers of guitars and keyboards keep things sonically interesting, Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics are penetrating, and although dark and difficult on the surface there are many catchy elements to be discovered.
4. Farewell Milwaukee – FM
FM, the fourth release from Minnesota band Farewell Milwaukee, is their masterpiece. It is filled with sparkling, melodic, mature, gorgeous Americana. It avoids the pitfalls of so much contemporary work in that genre: it isn't too lyrically straightforward, the songs and arrangements go so much further than the flat melodies and journal entries over random chords of many of their peers, and the bands energy is undeniable. The most overlooked album of 2016.
5. Willie Nelson – For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price
Every year Willie Nelson releases at least one late-era classic. 2016 was no exception, as For the Good Times conjures the spirit of Ray Price at a time when country music can surely use such an elixir. That’s not to say that contemporary country radio is bad; it’s fun, let them be. It’s also not like alternatives to new country (the boring, gutless, hopelessly overrated new Sturgill Simpson album comes to mind) is any better.
Regardless of your opinion of them, country radio and its alternatives are not much like the classic, twangy era of country (the ‘50s-‘70s), so these new Willie Nelson albums are essential. There’s little better for an old school country nerd than Willie Nelson covering Ray Price, and For the Good Times doesn’t disappoint. Willie’s band is laid back and hits each groove with ease, and the sound of the album recreates the organic sound of ’70s country perfectly. Every song is a highlight.
God bless Willie Nelson.
6. Alejandro Escovedo – Burn Something Beautiful
On Burn Something Beautiful Alejandro Escovedo teamed up with eccentric Minus Five leader Scott McCaughey. The results are impressive, Escovedo’s knack for melody accentuated by McCaughey’s jangly pop/rock background. Different palates are used throughout, something like a classic ‘60s Beatles album: “Horizontal" features a wall of guitars and is big, weird, and grooving; “Sunday Morning Feeling” is somehow both jangly and macabre; “Suit of Lights” is a gorgeous acoustic ballad; and closing “Though I’d Let You Know” is dark and lovely.
The highlight, however, is “Farewell to the Good Times,” an effortless, endearing folk song with a memorable melody and one of the most creative lyrics of the year.
7. Jimbo Mathus – Band of Storms
Although busy with a newly reformed Squirrel Nut Zippers, Jimbo Mathus found time in 2016 to release Band of Storms, a solidly swampy follow-up to his 2015 roots rock masterpiece Blue Healer. It has a ramshackle sound, almost like it was recorded on the road. The songs themselves, however, are smart and well-written: “Let’s Play with Fire,” “Stop Your Crying,” and “Keep it Together” are dark and ruminative, the swampy soul of “Gringo Man” channels early 70s Rolling Stones, and “Massive Confusion” is garage rock that practically falls off the rails (in the best way).
Subtle and beautiful, Band of Storms is full of Mathus’ Mississippi blood, guts, and soul.
8. Charlie Hunter – Everyone Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth
If the title of jazz guitarist Charlie Hunters 17th album doesn’t draw you in, the music certainly will. The Mike Tyson quote that it’s named after is cool, but the music is cool. With Punch Hunter adds an intentional blues element to his sweet, soulful jazz. Highlights include the funky groove of “Leave Him Lay,” swampy calypso rocker “Latin for Travelers,” and blues/funk/r n’ b/jazz amalgam “(Looks Like) Somebody Got Ahead of Schedule on their Medication.”
9. The Devil Makes Three – Redemption and Ruin
Redemption and Ruin is a dizzying and original blend of practically every kind of traditional American music. Americana is done best when it conjures the past without boringly copying it, and Redemption and Ruin does just that. “Champaign and Reefer” is straightforward blues, “I Gotta Get Drunk” a mix of western swing and Dixieland, “Chase the Feeling” is a slow, emotive folk song, and spooky “Waiting Around to Die” is led by atmospheric accordion and fiddle.
10. GOAT – Requiem
On their latest release Requiem, anonymous Swedish band GOAT took another step forward. The lush, expansive soundscapes of the album are filled with layers of reverb-heavy acoustic guitars, piano, and a wide variety of percussion. Fantastic grooves are found throughout, ranging from hypnotic and droning (“Goatband,” “It’s Not Me”) to sounding like a neo-pagan drum circle (the magnificent “Temple Rhythms”) to Middle Eastern and Caribbean (“Alarms” and “Trouble in the Street” respectively). They may remain anonymous, but their creative psychedelic rock is anything but.
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He was also Lead Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik's music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.