Best Music of 2016: New Releases

I’ve said it before, and in 2016 it’s true as ever: those people who complain that there’s no good music any more simply aren’t looking hard enough, or in the right places. I had no trouble coming up with a Top Ten Eleven list of new albums for 2016. I easily could have added many more.

In fact I didn’t review all ten eleven of my picks, but I did cover them in one form or another, usually an interview/feature. Without further ado, and – please note – in no particular order, here is my new release Top 10 11 list for this year.

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Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution
Ms. Spalding is, for me, the breakout artist of 2016. She has a strong command of any genre in which she chooses to work, and her original music is as compelling as it is unclassifiable.

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Fantastic Negrito – The Last Days of Oakland
The man born Xavier Dphrepaulezz managed a remarkable reinvention of his person and career in the years after a near-fatal and life-changing car accident. His live show is one of the most powerful I’ve ever witnessed. And The Last Days of Oakland is nearly as hard to pin down stylistically as Spalding’s record. That’s all to the good.

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Starling Electric – Electric Company
I discovered this unjustly obscure band nearly a decade ago when they released their debut album. It took some digging, but I got in touch with the group’s mastermind Caleb Dillon; he sent me CDRs of what would eventually be released as Electric Company, plus two other discs (both of which are nearly as good) of additional material. Cross Pet Sounds and SMiLE-era Beach Boys with Guided by Voices, sprinkle a bit more indie sensibility on top, and you’ve got Starling Electric.

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The Twilight Hours – Black Beauty
This Minneapolis band is closely related to both Trip Shakespeare (1980s) and Semisonic (’90s); consult Pete Frame for a rock family tree if you need one. Their debut made my best-of list on its release; this long-awaited followup is every bit as good, and worth the long wait. Guys, please don’t make us wait so long for the third album.

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Charlie Faye & the Fayettes – s/t
It’s one of 2016’s minor frustrations that I was unable to get any press for this Austin group, beyond my review. They’re quite good; Faye pivoted from her country-leaning persona to make this, a modern girl-group classic. She’s joined by two other fine vocalists, one of whom (Akina Adderley) happens to be the grand-niece of one of my favorite musicians of all time, jazz great Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.

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Those Pretty Wrongs – s/t
Not only is Jody Stephens one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, he’s talented far beyond what had been revealed before this. As the drummer in Big Star, he was perhaps overshadowed by Chris Bell and Alex Chilton. But this album – which is very much in the classic Big Star style, right down to some signature guitar licks and drum fills – shows that he may well have been the George Harrison of his old group.

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Bill Pritchard – Mother Town Hall
At this point, I’m not at all sure how I stumbled upon this undiscovered gem of an album. “Saturn & Co.” is the best track on this album by the British artist who’s bigger in France than at home (and largely unknown here), but the entire album is filled with wonderfully memorable, well-written songs.

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Brett Harris – Up in the Air
I first discovered Harris several years ago when he was part of a large ensemble led by the dB’s Chris Stamey. I’ve since seen him live onstage twice performing under his own name; with the Big Star 3rd ensemble; as part of Stamey’s baroque-leaning live project; and once an as auxiliary member of the dB’s. His solo album exceeds the lofty expectations those associations place at his feet. Lots more about him here.

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Yuka & Chronoship – The 3rd Planetary Chronicles
Oddly for me – as I’m a serious aficionado of progressive rock – this is the only prog title on my 2016 list. But it earns its place here. Yuka doesn’t, I don’t think, speak much English, nor do her bandmates, all of whom are from Japan. But there are some vocals on this concept album, and they’re in easily-understood English. As the title suggests, this release leans decidedly in a space rock direction. Great stuff.

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Mike Mills – Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra
An unexpected project from a reliably creative individual, the Concerto is superb, and a quite effective hybrid of rock and classical (or classical-leaning) ideas. Robert McDuffie‘s violin serves as a superb lead instrument. If you’re at all open to cross-genre experiments, do check out this supremely tuneful release from the former R.E.M. bassist.

Drive-By Truckers — American Band
A late-breaking addition (for me), as I didn’t hear this album until the waning days of the year. Say what you will about “southern rock,” but this album offers the very best of what music is about: deeply incisive lyrics set to rocking, infectious music. Easily one of the best mainstream-rock releases I’ve heard in a very, very long time. Watch for my interview with DBT’s Patterson Hood, coming in 2017.