Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016 in Review: Best Albums

Here are my picks for Best Albums. These 20 studio releases definitely stood out from the pack. A few were "under the radar" and serve as a good reminder of what was available beyond mainstream radio playlists and music publications in 2016.

1. Last Shadow Puppets, "Everything You've Come to Expect" (Domino) - It took eight years, but the sophisticated second album from Arctic Monkeys' frontman Alex Turner, Miles Kane and James Ford was definitely worth the wait. Featuring shrewd lyrics, deft string arrangements by Owen Pallett (Arcade Fire) and an overall lounge lizard vibe, all the tunes came into clearer focus during the band's standout performance at Coachella Festival #2 last spring. 

2. The Record Company, "Give it Back to You" (Concord) - The LA trio impressed right out of the gate with their enticing debut's take on modern blues rock.

3. The Pixies, "Head Carrier" (PIAS) - Improving on underrated 2014 reunion effort "Indie Cindy," the highly influential veteran alt-rock band crafts another unique-sounding batch of songs with now-full-time bassist/backing vocalist Paz Lenchantin truly making her presence felt.

4. Tom Odell, "Wrong Crowd" (RCA) - A BRIT and Ivor Novello-winner in his native England, the singer/keyboardist goes big and dramatic on a sophomore album co-produced with Jim Abbiss (Kasabian, Arctic Monkeys).

5. St. Lucia, "Matter" (Columbia) - The Brooklyn-based synth pop band led by charismatic South African native Jean-Philip Grobler channels the Eighties on its second release of well-crafted infectious gems. "Dancing on Glass" was one of the year's more memorable earworms.

6. Green Day, "Revolution Radio" (Reprise) - Topical as ever on supercharged first single "Bang Bang," not to mention "Troubled Times," Billie Joe Armstrong, Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt sound revitalized here. Meanwhile, "Forever Now" is among their finest epic suites.

7. Travis, "Everything at Once" (Caroline) - The venerable Scotsmen remain eternally optimistic on their eighth album, often using U2 as a stylistic touchstone. Singer Fran Healy even does a charming duet with a female vocalist - a first for Travis.

8. Johnnyswim, "Georgica Pond" (Big Picnic) - Moving from low-key ethereal numbers to high intensity gospel, folk and R&B-tinged tunes, this husband and wife duo command attention with seamless harmonies (Amanda Sudano-Ramirez learned from the best: her mom was the late Donna Summer). Vince Gill adds tasty guitar work to a track, while the pair's take on Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" is almost more haunting than the original. 

9. Paul Kelly & Charlie Owen, "Death's Dateless Night" (Cooking Vinyl) - It's been a busy year for Kelly. First, the ARIA award-winning singer/songwriter emerged with "Seven Sonnets and a Song," an intriguing collection based on the works of William Shakespeare. Then came this stellar collaboration with Owen - who fellow Aussie Kelly first sang about on 1998 song "Charlie Owen's Slide Guitar." Utilizing sparse instrumentation (piano, acoustic guitar, Dobro, lap steel), they captivate on a wide ranging crop of covers such as Lennon & McCartney, Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, Cole Porter and Hank Williams, plus a couple traditional numbers.

10. Rolling Stones, "Blue & Lonesome" (Polydor) - The long running rock 'n' roll band cut their teeth on the blues. Now, after 54 years together, the Brits have finally done a proper tribute featuring songs made famous by Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and others. Recorded live and surprisingly quickly in the studio (their last album arrived in 2005), the Stones give new vitality to the nuggets. Mick Jagger blasts some wicked harmonica and Eric Clapton even turns up to put his guitar stamp on two tracks.

11. David Bowie, "Blackstar" (Columbia)
12. Rick Springfield, "Rocket Science" (Frontiers)
13. Radiohead, "A Moon Shaped Pool" (XL)
14. Sara Watkins, "Young in All the Wrong Ways" (NewWest)
15. Cyndi Lauper, "Detour" (Sire)
16. Cheap Trick, "Bang Zoom Crazy Hello" (Big Machine)
17. Eric Hutchinson, "Easy Street" (Let's Break)
18. Brandy Clark, "Big Day in a Small Town" (Warner Bros.)
19. Pretenders, "Alone" (BMG)
20. Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones, "Little Windows" (Cooking Vinyl)  

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