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Staff Picks: Music of the Year

2016 was a pretty impressive year in music, though it was also marked by the passing of several superlative performers including Merle Haggard, David Bowie, Prince, Sharon Jones, Leonard Cohen and many more.  However, we also saw some of the finest work by big name musicians, including the final albums of both Cohen and Bowie, as well as new albums from Beyoncé, Adele and Radiohead.  To celebrate this year of music, our staff has highlighted some of their favorite music from the year. 

Image by Nan Palmero, flickr user

Jason P.'s album of the year:

   Blindfaller -- Mandolin Orange

The folk/bluegrass duo, Mandolin Orange, released their fifth full length album, Blindfaller, on the cusp of a historical election and it could not have been more timely. The albums opener, "Hey Stranger" sticks to the simplistic sound of their past, while other songs on the album feature a full band, something uncommon with their previous releases. They've also delved into topics unfamiliar to earlier works. "Wildfire" explores tensions surrounding the civil war and the rift between the north and south, while "Take This Heart of Gold" is a unconventional love ballad about the struggles of keeping a relationship together. Perhaps my favorite song on the album is one that harkens back to the duo's roots. "Echo", a piece featuring just an acoustic guitar and mandolin offers visions of a time when the mountains, rivers and pines were silent and free from the noise of our everyday lives. The album has easily become one of my favorites, not just from the year, but of all time. 

Kate's favorite albums:

   Blue & Lonesome – The Rolling Stones

The Stones are arguably the best rock band of all time, but with Blue & Lonesome they remind fans of their music’s roots. The backbone of the band’s bones-rattling rock 'n’ roll has always been their chosen genre’s more soulful predecessor. Although it’s a cover album, it’s the best album the band has released since 1978’s Some Girls. But that’s just my opinion.

   Black Terry Cat – Xenia Rubinos

Largely political, Xenia Rubinos doesn’t shy away from tough stuff on her first full-length album; she presents it in a personal, poetic way. She uses the space of each song to play, molding fourteen tracks into very different shapes. She studied jazz in college, but moves effortlessly in and out of pop structures, tossing into it the joyful freedom of art-rock, the vocabulary of hip-hop, the rhythms of Caribbean music, the smoothness and flow of R&B, and the groove of funk.

   The Bird & the Rifle ­– Lori McKenna

Lori McKenna writes and sings with a stunning conviction and honesty. She’s one of the most sought after songwriters in Nashville and it’s easy to see why with her descriptive lyrics and all-too-real life-like storylines. These truly are McKenna’s stories to tell, and she sells you on that truth. The Bird & the Rifle is McKenna’s tenth studio release

Heather ‘s favorite albums:

Generally when it comes to music, it can’t get too depressing for me.  I’m especially a fan of break up albums and sad lady folk singers.  Thankfully this year didn’t disappoint in gloomy, melancholy albums even from some of pops finest. 

   Lemonade -- Beyoncé

This is definitely one of the biggest and most talked about albums of the year.  Although the first half of the album is an immensely satisfying anthem for anyone cheated on or betrayed, Lemonade is only partly the battle cry of a woman scorned.  Queen Bey also touches on bigger issues than relationship troubles including the struggles of being black and woman in America today. Beyoncé experiments with an impressive amount of sounds on the album, even including a country music inspired track (“Daddy Lessons”)!      

   Anti -- Rihanna

I’m generally not a pop music fan girl, but I adore Rihanna.  She has the right mix of bad attitude, sick beats, and mournful relationship songs.  This album has very little on it that resembles a top 40 single, but it’s an infectious listen as an album; it has a smoky, wistful mood that makes it a great late night listen when you’re feeling a little blue.  The last three tracks on the album, “Love on the Brain,” “Higher” and “Close to You” are near moody perfection.

   My Woman – Angel Olsen 

This album is definitely in my wheelhouse: it’s by an indie rock folk singer and it’s full of songs about love gone wrong.  That’s pretty much the definition of what I listen to, but this album really exceeded my expectations.  This album has a much bigger than sound than Olsen's previous albums, including her breakout album Burn Your Fire for No Witness.  She also adds different retro sound elements, occasionally channeling 1960s girl groups and a sunny, 70s Stevie Nicks vibe, which give the album a timeless vibe. 

   A Moon Shaped Pool -- Radiohead

Radiohead has always been known for their bleak and pessimistic outlook, but this album has a more personal ache to it.  The band’s more anxious rock songs are replaced by delicately haunting tracks, but don’t worry, there are enough jagged melodies and orchestral flourishes to keep you on your feet. 

    Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave

Nick Cave has written a great number of songs about death over his career, but this album captures the essence of mourning.  Cave’s son Arthur died while he was making the album and though he had mostly finished writing the lyrics, Cave’s grief over his loss hovers over the album.  This is a dark, serious listen, but also defintely a worthwhile one. 

Jason K.'s favorite music of the year:  

“We, The Drowned” by Lisa Hannigan, from the album At Swim

Imagistic ruminations on a doomed world, reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.”

“Love’s Refrain” by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, from the In Summer EP

Lush noise experimentation.

“Rivers” by The Tallest Man On Earth, released as a single

Kristian Matsson being plaintive, which is all I really want from him.

“By the Roes, and By the Hinds of the Field” by Jóhann Jóhannsson, from the album Orphée

My pick for Album of the Year.

“Untitled 1” by Low, from The Exit Papers EP

Moody minimalism. My preferred aesthetic.

“Not Myself” by Sharon Van Etten, released as a single

Van Etten’s stirring tribute to the victims of the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting.

“Kanon Pokajanen: Kontakion” performed by Daniel Reuss and Cappella Amsterdam, from the album Arvo Pärt: Kanon Pokajanen

A new recording of an Orthodox hymn by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

“It’s Happening Again” by Agnes Obel, from the album Citizen of Glass

I am convinced that this song has always existed.

“Nightmarket” by Burial, from the Young Death / Nightmarket 12”

The first new music from South London’s reclusive genius since the 2014 Rival Dealer EP.

“Beige” by Exploded View, from the album Exploded View

This brief track channels early Kim Gordon/Sonic Youth in all the right ways.

“Study for Player Piano (II)” by Ólafur Arnalds, from the album Island Songs

Was this piece actually composed with player pianos? Yes, and you can see them here.

“Finally, Peace” by Swans, from the album The Glowing Man

The final Swans album fittingly concludes with paradoxes worthy of Zeno.

Check out a playlist of Jason K.'s favorite tracks: