The 10 Best Albums of 2016

I still love albums. I still love vinyl. But for me, 2016 was really more of a year of songs, not albums.

Except these ten.

These told a story, had a focus, had that magic that kept me listening. Rare finds. I’m happy to have found them. Hope you found a few of the same in 2016!

Jason Gonulsen
Editor, Speakers in Code

10. Kacey Musgraves – A Very Kacey Christmas

A Christmas album, you ask? Yes. Yes. Yes. One with Willie Nelson singing on “A Willie Nice Christmas” and Leon Bridges singing on “Present Without a Bow.” But the star is still Musgraves, who is still doing whatever the fuck she wants, which is becoming increasingly rare in the music world, where it seems “likes” and “followers” are more important than the quality of an album. Not here. Kacey once again puts a bow on quality.

9. Neil Young + Promise of the Real – Earth

Neil Young released two albums in 2016, Earth and Peace Trail, and while the latter was solid (with some very good songs, “Peace Trail” and “Indian Givers”), it felt rushed and unfinished to a degree (and from what I have been reading in interviews, that was the intent). Not so with Earth. I’ll admit it’s almost impossible to capture the energy of a Neil Young + Promise of the Real show, but Earth comes very close to doing that. And its added touch of nature’s mysterious sounds makes it a unique listening live album experience.

8. Wilco – Schmilco

It took me a little bit to adjust to the quieter side of Wilco — we hadn’t really experienced it in a long time. But after a few listens, I took Schmilco for what it is: less bells and whistles, more substance with words. I might not ever fully appreciate “Common Sense,” but hey, they’ve earned the right to confuse me every now and then.

7. Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life

Courtney Marie Andrews has become one of my favorite songwriters, mostly because she is a writer who favors honesty over catchy bullshit. Anyone who can write songs like “Irene,” “Rookie Dreaming,” “Let The Good One Go,” and “Only In My Mind” deserves praise. My hope is that you will take note of her extraordinary talents.

6. John Paul White – Beulah

First off — I loved The Civil Wars. But after listening to Beulah, White’s first solo effort since the dissolution of The Civil Wars, and seeing him live twice in 2016, it’s very clear to me that he doesn’t need Joy Williams to shine. That’s not a knock on Williams, but rather a coronation of White as an elite songwriter.

5. Jim James – Eternally Even

I did not fully appreciate this solo album from Jim James, My Morning Jacket’s lead singer, until I saw him perform it live, and then it hit me all at once. A cathartic, honest, and defiant album, one that makes more sense if you play it in full. Or see him live.

4. Charles Bradley – Changes

2016 has been cruel, with the loss of Sharon Jones, among many others. But we still have Charles Bradley, who performs and sings from the heart. And Changes is one of his best efforts to date — I simply cannot stop listening to every song, especially the title track. Bradley was recently diagnosed with a cancerous stomach tumor, but we know he’s fighting, and our thoughts are with him. My hope is to see him again performing and smiling in 2017.

3. Amanda Shires – My Piece Of Land

Amanda Shires pretty much has it all. She’s a terrific performer, with her voice floating through the air with no other intention but finding your heart. But it’s not written enough how wonderful of a songwriter she is. Her words present a mature and intelligent songwriter. In fact, this is my favorite lyrically-rich album of the year. Just listen to “Harmless” and “I Know What It’s Like.” I rest my case.

2. Drive-By Truckers – American Band

You already know that “What It Means” is our Song of the Year. And I’m happy to report that the rest of American Band matches that kind of musical and lyrical power. From “Ramon Casiano” to “Once They Banned Imagine” to “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn,” this is my favorite DBT album to date.

1. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

Neil Young wrote in the liner notes of Decade, “‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.” Sturgill Simpson has taken to the sea. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is our Album of the Year because it promises no clear path, no direction home, and no easy way out. It twists, turns, and then hits you with the unthinkable, an absolutely timeless cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” I’ll be listening to this piece of work for years to come.

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