2016’s Albums Of Note, Part Three


I don’t like “best-of” lists, and I think they’re just…dumb. Short-sighted. I mean, really, how can one possibly quantify a year’s worth of artistic accomplishments and releases numerically, with just a handful of releases? It just seems so silly. That being said, an end of the year review isn’t necessarily a bad idea; in fact, I’m all in favor of taking a few minutes and reviewing what was right about the year.  It’s in that spirit that we spend this next week taking a look at just a handful of what I personally feel to have been some of the year’s highlights, split up over the next five days, and presented alphabetically, because what I feel to have been “best” might not be yours, as art is completely subjective, and, well…I just happen to like these records that just happened to have been released in 2016.

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the-monkeesThe Monkees: Good Times!: Good Times!, the “comeback” record by The Monkees, proved to be the surprise hit of the year. The reunion was prompted by the fiftieth anniversary of the band’s formation, and features all three of the surviving members, though a completed outtake does feature the late Davy Jones. While several of the tracks are modern completions of unreleased numbers from their heyday—the most delightful of which is their take on the Carole King classic “Wasn’t Born To Follow”—it was the coordinated assistance of numerous contemporary artists such as Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller (“Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”), Zach Rogue (“Terrifying”), Ben Gibbard (“Me & Magdalena”), and Andy Partridge (“You Bring The Summer”) that really makes this a magical record. Overall, Good Times! is the sound of a masterful baroque pop band showing the world once and for all that yes, they were a real band, and that they didn’t need a silly TV show to serve as a vehicle for their music.

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old-fireOld Fire: Songs From The Haunted South: John Mark Latham’s project Old Fire may have only just released their debut album, but the project had a long gestation. Meant to be the follow-up to The Late Chord, his 4AD-released collaboration with Micah P. Hinson, the album morphed into an homage to This Mortal Coil, featuring a round of vocalists and musicians helping out on original material and a selection of obscure but worthy covers from artists old (Camberwall Now, Psychic TV) and new (Jason Molina, Low, Shearwater, Ian William Craig). Standouts include the gorgeous “Shadows” (featuring a rare vocal turn from Tom Rapp) and “Bloodchild,” but really, the whole damn thing is one of the most beautiful records released all year. Housed in a fantastic Vaughn Oliver sleeve, Songs From The Haunted South really feels like 4AD’s “one that got away.” (Kscope/Brooklyn Bridge Records)

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oskarsdrumOskar’s Drum: A Cathedral of Hands:  I first heard Kitchens of Distinction way back in 1990, with the release of their single, “Drive That Fast.” It was love-at-first-hearing; a love that was cemented with the one-two punch of Strange Free World and The Death Of Cool, and seeing them live with Suzanne Vega was easily one of the loudest shows I’d seen at that point, second only to the My Blood Valentine/Dinosaur Jr. show I witnessed. Sadly, the band would split after one more album, 1994’s Cowboys & Aliens, but would return in 2013 with Folly. It was a mellower affair, distinctive in its way and more akin to the mellower moments of Cowboys & Aliens and frontman Patrick Fitzgerald’s Stephen Hero project.  Oskar’s Drum, however, is Fitzgerald’s newest project, and with his collaborative partner Yves Altana (Wonky Alice, The Bardots), he’s making louder and harder music, one that might nominally be called “Britpop,” but more in line with late 90s British alternative rock. That’s not a bad thing, either; Fitzgerald wrote some great alt-rock back in the day, and  “Infenral” and “Blackouts” are excellent uptempo numbers that are easily two of Fitzgerald’s best rockers, and his dalliances with piano-minded balladry on “In Water” and “The Last Time I Saw Roger” are satisfying as well. This album came out of nowhere—much like Fitzgerald’s other project, The April Seven, a collaboration with The Family Cat’s Paul Frederick—and hopefully this delightful record will soon be followed up, as A Cathedral Of Hands is a masterful and promising debut. (Ragoora)

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olympiansThe Olympians: The Olympians: Younger listeners and journalists have been impressed with The Olympians’ self-titled debut album, finding its version of instrumental Soul and R&B to be something mysterious, exotic, unique. But for older listeners and aficionados, the concept is nothing new; it’s an homage to the time when soul labels would have house bands that also released records, such as MFSB and The Salsoul Orchestra. In this case, The Olympians is a house band of sorts for Daptone Records, one of the most active and vital soul labels today. Spearheaded by Toby Pazner, The Olympians oozes sophisticated soul and R&B; it is an album that is pure class. Much like the vintage groups they emulate, the record is thematically linked; in this case, the songs are conceptually tied to Greek mythology and the planets. The concept might be tenuous, but no matter; the record’s m.o. is groove, and groove is exactly what you get. (Daptone Records)

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richmondfontaineRichmond Fontaine: You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To: Parting is such sweet sorrow, but if you’re going to bring your band to an end, going out on a high note is the way to do it. Richmond Fontaine, who over the past twenty years have released a steady flow of distinguished and critically acclaimed albums, called it a day this year, but they bowed out with You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To,  a wonderful album of melancholic roots rock and alt.country. With rich, lush countrypolitan arrangements, You Can’t Go Back… is populated with some of the band’s finest songs to date, and its theme of breakup, disappointment, and heartbreak feels apropos for a farewell album. Frontman Willy Vlautin, who has in recent years become a novelist, has a way with telling lyrical stories and capturing a mood, and songs like “Tapped Out In Tulsa,” “I Got Off The Bus,” and “Don’t Skip Out On Me” are powerful, emotional numbers that feel appropriate for a goodbye, while the heartbreaking closing number “Easy Run” is one of the best final-album finales you’ll hear. (Fluff And Gravy/Decor Records)

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willow-robinsonWillow Robinson: Ocean Blue/Stones: Young British folk musician Willow Robinson has been on our radar for the past two years, thanks to his amazingly versatile voice. Early Youtube videos of live performances led us to believe that he is the reincarnation of Tim Buckley—no mean feat, and no hyperbole about this, his voice is that good. Though he has yet to release his debut album, he has in the interim released two four-song digital EP’s, which combined make one impressive introduction.While he reigns in the Buckley-isms on these recordings (though it’s undeniable on Stones’ “Cherry Wine” and “Eternal”), it’s not disappointing; if anything, the restraint allows Robinson to escape the potential fate of being a one-trick pony. Robinson was discovered by Alan McGee, and McGee has been quite vocally enthusiastic in his support. Considering his track record for discovering talent, it almost seems an afterthought to say that this young man’s career is just getting started. Here’s to 2017, and the debut album proper—have a feeling that it will make many best-of lists this time next year. In the interim, these two fine little releases will satiate. (Clark & McGee Ltd.)

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