***3 Albums was a semi-regular music series I wrote for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library between July 2016 and January 2018.
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
3…2…1… HAPPY NEW YE…
Wait! Hold your horses, folks! 2016 still has to burn through a few more hours before we regroup, rewind and restart the whole shabang over again. “From the top” as those musician-types are so fond of saying.
Any music commentator worth their salt is using the dying year’s dwindling days to formulate a list of great music that has been released during the last 365 days. Sifting through the rubble and rubbish to bring to light their glorious gleaming BEST OF 2016 lists!
SPOILER: I don’t have a BEST OF 2016 3 Albums for you.
GASP! For shame, Kyle! Think of the children!
I know, I know. I’ve always struggled to come up with year-end best-of lists. I have plenty of good excuses though:
I’m just too wishy-washy to nail it down. (Truth!)
I’m not linear enough for the task. Many of my favorite “new” finds of this year weren’t released in 2016.
The sheer numbers game makes it too much of a daunting task. Hold on for some math kids!
Now-a-days, it’s impossible to accurately estimate how many albums are released each year. The music world is broader and wider than it’s ever been and artists have a plethora of different avenues to get their music out. A ballpark-edumacated-guesstimate would easily put the number of yearly album releases over 100,000.
EGADS! A best-of edition of 3 Albums would consist of what I consider the upper-stratosphere-tip-toppiest 3/100,000. That’s insane… there’s just too much fantastic music out there to make such bold declarations! What I am comfortable doing is giving you 3 releases from this past year that spent a lot of time in my ears and brought me a good deal of musical joy. It may not be definitive but I promise they’re definitely good!
So here’s approximately 0.00003% of this year’s music that I think you should hear before starting in on 2017’s tunes. GO!
Sara Watkins – Young In All the Wrong Ways (2016)
“I’m going out to see about my own frontier” – “Young In All the Wrong Ways”
Speaking of math and fractions: 8 is the number of years Sara Watkins had spent on this Earth when she became 1/3 of a little seminal-progressive-bluegrass band named Nickel Creek.
(8 years old! What?! Who does that?! Sara Watkins does.)
In the 25+ years since, she’s kept busy making lots and lots of quality music. I’ve kept an ear tuned to most of it but nothing has knocked me upside the head quite like her third solo album which came out this summer.
There has been a steady shift in the role Sara has taken in her musical endeavors. She has always been a great arranger, singer and violinist. It is in more recent years that she has fully begun to embrace her role as a Boss (with a capital B) songwriter. This is the first time she’s had a hand in writing 100% of the tracks on a record and as they say: The proof is in the pudding.
The album starts with a well executed red herring: a timid, almost apologetic, hushed voice repeats the titular phrase a couple times before giving way to a clangy electric guitar against an aggressive drum backbeat. It soon becomes clear that Watkins WAS young in all the wrong ways, but she ain’t talkin’ present tense.
This album is a confident declaration and the courage to change is the message. Even musically this theme is clear: Sara only picks up her signature violin for 2 or 3 of the 10 tracks. Like a bad dye-job (ZING!), the traces of her bluegrass roots are scattered here and there but her sound has become something more.
The whole album balances precariously in the present, in the strange way things do when you have one eye focused in your past and one eye fixed on the future horizon (something we all like to do around the New Year). One thing is clear, though: Sara will probably keep changing it up as she puts down her next step and I will be along for the listen wherever she ends up.
Favs: “Young in all the Wrong Ways,” “One Last Time,” “Move Me,” “Like New Year’s Day”
Ladyhawke – Wild Things (2016)
“Let it roll… Let it roll… Let it roll like a newborn soul” – “Let It Roll“
Anyone that’s taken a peek at my previous recommendations will catch on pretty darn quick that I’m drawn to the plucky buzz of an acoustic guitar over the bleeps and bloops of a synthesizer. So Ladyhawke‘s Wild Things is probably a somewhat unusual choice for me to feature (curveball ya’ll!).
I think strong songwriting can easily cut through your particular genre preferences if you’re open to it.
The strong songwriting on Wild Things is courtesy of Phillipa “Pip” Brown, the New Zealander behind the Ladyhawke moniker. She’s one of a growing group of songwriters from recent years that are producing modern music that have there feet strongly rooted in the 80’s sonic landscape.
As a child of the 80’s, I find it downright awesome that she includes 8-bit video games among her list of influences. It certainly comes through in the music: Close your eyes during the intro of many of the songs on this album and you may find yourself thinking “Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start!”
In addition to the quirky, catchy grooves it was Ladyhawke’s heartfelt lyrics that drew me in. She has the ability to turn quite a wonderful phrase. One that caught me completely off guard shows up in “Wonderland” when she describes something as being “like that heart shake feeling from your favorite band.”
There’s a unique emotion that is evoked by hearing the music that resonates most closely with the particular beating of your heart. I think “that heart shake feeling” comes pretty close to zeroing in on it and I recommend this phrase to anyone in the serious business of gushing about bands that just click.
So in that spirit: Check out Ladyhawke and maybe (just maybe) you’ll feel that beautiful heart shake feeling residing in the bloops and bleeps.
Favs: “The River,” “Let It Roll,” “Golden Girl,” and “Wonderland”
The Shelters: The Shelters (2016)
“Yeah it’s all what you make it – Everything I touch turns gold.” – “Gold”
Every musician is molded by their influences. They peek through the cracks in the new songs a band creates. Music artists walk a very thin tightrope of wanting to create what they already enjoy but also letting their unique voice come through. Often times it falls flat and a band sounds like they are trying too hard to imitate the greats that came before them.
Occasionally, you get an album that is steeped in all the band’s influences without sacrificing what feels like a fresh authentic voice. Enter: The Shelters.
According to their bio, The Shelters were given the dream opportunity that would make any aspiring musician’s jaw drop. Tom Petty was at one of their early performances and saw enormous potential. He invited them to record their debut album at his studio. Talk about a great endorsement (+ about 100 metric tons of pressure to produce!). However, Tom Petty probably has a pretty reliable gut feeling for these things and the Shelters rose to the occasion and made a really bang-up debut.
The self-titled The Shelters album almost serves as a course study: Rock n’ Roll 101. Every song feels like a different chapter in music history. You get traces of rootsy folk/blues (“Nothin’ In The World…”), hints of late 60’s Beatles (Dandelion Ridge), 70’s stadium rockers (“Birdwatching” & “Liar”), and several tracks that could be pulled from the broad spectrum of the past three decades of indie-rock (“Ghost Is Gone” & “Gold”).
In the most appropriate homage, the opening track “Rebel Heart” would have fit in perfectly on any vintage Tom Petty album.
Yet throughout the track listing you don’t get the sense that these songs are trying to be something they’re not… they are just the collective product of four guys that obviously have deep love for the entirety of Rock history. Stranger still, you never feel that all these different Rock genres are ill-fitting as a whole.
It’s an album that makes you excited to hear what this band will do next. Hopefully, The Shelters will dive further into their unique voice that is separate from but also a distinct product of all those that came before.
Favs: “Rebel Heart,” “Birdwatching,” “Gold,” “Never Look Behind Ya”
PS: So long 2016. Happy New Year and Auld Lang Syne and all that jazz! Here’s to more music to come… and kudos to you if you’re bold enough to have a definitive BEST OF list for 2016 – leave it for me in the comments below!