As appropriate for this time of year for a weekly column that reviews record albums that typically sidestep the mainstream, The Boudin Barndance radio show offers up its annual baker’s dozen of releases from 2016 that hit the spot. Whereas the music and releases continue to be plentiful each year and especially in this era where D.I.Y. has never been easier, there continues to be way too much ho hum. To these ears, the 13 mentioned here all had that extra something special. Frankly speaking, so did many of the “Honorable Mention” selections and if you’re an open-minded type out there, all are well worth seeking out. In no real particular order, these are records which got the most play in the Ear Bliss world during 2016. Let’s get onto it.
Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man Records)
Originally recorded on her own nickel at the legendary Sun Studios and picked up by Jack White’s Third Man Records for release, Price’s debut the in country music world in 2016 much like Sturgill Simpson’s a few years earlier. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is a hard-bit and fresh-sounding traditional country tour de force oozing with twang that effectively mixes all the drama of a Tammy Wynette ballad with the feistiness of a Loretta Lynn honky tonker.
Angel Olsen – My Woman (Jagjaguwar Records)
As much a rush as it can be meditative, My Woman from Angel Olsen is a masterful work where the first half is upbeat and fizzing with energy and the second more personal geared towards those alone and contemplative moments and with the beautifully expressive voice of Olsen at the heart of all of it.
Steve Gunn – Eyes on the Lines (Matador Records)
The moments of aural bliss of the six-string variety are many across the nine tracks comprising Eyes on the Lines from guitarist/singer/songwriter Gunn on this reflective affair with its sprawling sonic soundscape.
Robbie Fulks – Upland Stories (Bloodshot Records)
Songs that get to the heart in a hurry in one way or the other with the occasional wink and a smile have always been Fulks’ gift and on the all acoustic Upland Stories (which also showcases some nifty Fulks fingerwork), be they happy or sad, he succeeds time and again.
Sara Watkins – Young in All the Wrong Ways (New West Records)
After her work with Nickel Creek and then Watkins Family Hour, Sara Watkins is front and center on this solo affair which easily ranks as her most soul-baring album to date set to a multi-colored musical backdrop. Another instance where breakup fuels muse to the max and an album I found myself returning to time and again.
The Flat Five – It’s a World of Love & Hope (Augiedisc/Bloodshot Records)
Sweet pop appeal aplenty with a refreshing side of quirkiness (think NRBQ for quick comparison’s sake) fills the songs and grooves of the smile-inducing and addictive It’s a World of Love and Hope from Chicago-based supergroup The Flat Five.
Marlon Williams – Marlon Williams (Dead Oceans Records)
All of 24 years of age, diversity is the spice of life as shades of everything from Gram Parsons to The Band and The Beatles to Echo & The Bunnymen are all over the debut from native New Zealand singer/songwriter Williams.
Nap Eyes – Thought, Rock, Fish, Scale (Paradise of Bachelors Records)
When I think of Nova Scotia and music, it’s thoughts of fiddles and reels and step dancing. Rock and roll hardly springs to mind which makes Thought Rock Fish Scale from the band Nap Eyes such a work of wonder. It’s trippy, psychedelic and all that kind of good stuff, but with a subtle sonic punch akin to classic Velvet Underground.
Lydia Loveless – Real (Bloodshot Records)
True to life songs sung with complete conviction by a petite spitfire with as much fang as heart and oh those shimmering guitars, a mash-up of electric, acoustic and pedal steel. Real is 10 songs that read like personal slices from Loveless’s own diary, which they mostly are.
Dylan LeBlanc – Cautionary Tale (Single Lock Records)
At times moody and others atmospheric and with a voice reminiscent of Jason Isbell, Cautionary Tales presents 10 original songs that former next-big-thing twentysomething LeBlanc describes as “getting honest with myself.” Restrained musical arrangements allow plenty of room for LeBlanc’s voice to emote in its soulful way. It’s deep stuff, not to mention a teeth-sinking listen.
Alejandro Escovedo – Burn Something Beautiful (Fantasy Records)
Produced by and made with like-minded comrades in Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5, Young Fresh Fellows), Burn Something Beautiful with guitars chiming and crunching on songs overloaded with melodic appeal is a rock and roll refresh of a joy to behold.
Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (Mama Bird Records)
From the songwriting to her beautiful singing voice, Andrews on Honest Life is an old soul trapped in a twentysomething’s body delivering captivating tunes with a distinct freshened-up yesteryear Laurel Canyon country/folk rock aroma.
Charles Bradley – Changes (Dunham Records)
At this stage of his career, many are already familiar with the rags-to-riches journey of the soul singer Charles Bradley. With spot-on backing from his Extraordinaires band, Bradley is in true form giving a performance dripping with passion and soul.
Honorable Mention: Aubrie Sellers – New City Blues (Carnival); 10 – The Cactus Blossoms – You’re Dreaming (Red House); Richmond Fontaine – You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To (El Cortez); Drive-By Truckers – American Band (ATO); The Linemen – Close the Place Down (SAM); Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like a Levee (Merge); Silas Lowe – Wandering Father Forgotten Son (self-released); Elise Davis – The Token (Make the Kill); Winterpills – Love Songs (Signature Sounds); Bob Weir – Blue Mountain (Legacy); Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster – Constant Stranger (Big Legal Mess Records); Brent Cobb – Shine On Rainy Day (Elektra); William Bell – This is Where I Live (Stax).
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3.)