2016: The Soundtrack

One of my favourite non-family-related holiday traditions is the browsing of “Best albums of the year” articles, blog posts and podcasts. Back in the days, my holiday music-buying lived and died according to what former broadcaster and pariah Gian Gomeshi offered as his top 20 albums of any given year. Since Gomeshi’s fall from grace, I have not found a compilation that was as consistently up my aisle as his. Oh well.

Now a normal music compilation would give you a list of “Best Albums Released in Given Year” but this is not how my world goes round. I’m a binge-everything. Binge-writer, binge-eater, binge-Netflixer, binge-music-listener. When I love an album, I love it until I break the machine. As a teenager, I warped cassette tapes. I don’t listen to music when it’s released, I listen to music when I want to. As a result, this is a compilation of the best bands and albums I discovered in 2016. I came late to the party on some of them but that should be no reason to neglect them. Happy listening!

1. Half Moon Run. Originally from Montreal, now mostly touring, the band kicked-off their latest tour in Ottawa this December. I went to their show with my oldest daughter, who was a fan back in the days when they drew a crowd of 15 at Ottawa’s Bluesfest. Now critically acclaimed and playing to sold-out mid-sized venues, the time to catch them up-close and personal is surely running out. Music style: alt-pop, Indie rock, rich melodies, vocal harmonies and acoustic arrangements.

On the playlist:
Consider Yourself
Full Circle

2. Scroobius Pip. I discovered this rapper/Hip hop/spoken word artist through my favourite podcast Sodajerker on Songwriting. As a writer, his work was a revelation to me. It inspired me to start writing my own poetry. My gateway song was The beat that my heart skipped but if you can take a bit of sound distortion, do listen to Magician’s Assistant: It’s brilliantly written, raw and hits you like a gut punch. Music style: Slam poetry, hip hop, spoken word, rap, electronic.

On the playlist:
The beat that my heart skipped
The Struggle
Magician’s Assistant

3. The Lumineers. Another discovery through Sodajerker’s interviews. I already knew Ho Hey (because who doesn’t?) but I recently discovered their second album, Cleopatra. The Lumineers are taking the old quip about 3 chords and the truth to it’s most beautiful expression. Their arrangements are creatively minimalist, in the way that only genius musical minds can muster. They don’t rely on instrumentation and over-production to round-out their songs, relying instead on rock-solid melodies, hooks, and riffs on the piano and guitar. Their songs tell stories that are made even more poignant by Wesley Schultz’s haunting voice. You can get a better look at the stories told in Cleopatra by watching the videos. In each video, the characters of the different stories cross paths and impact each other’s lives in direct and indirect ways. Music style: Acoustic, Americana, folk.

On the playlist:
Cleopatra
In the light
Ho Hey

4. Hamilton. Not having lived completely under a rock, I had heard about the musical Hamilton. I knew it was a phenomenon. I knew that tickets on Broadway were sold out until the cows came home, yadda, yadda, and my friends who loved Hamilton wouldn’t shut up about it already. Still, I was not inspired to listen to it until my 14 year-old daughter bought it on iTunes and it found its way on my phone through a sync accident. Hamilton is the Pulitzer-prize winning, viral, hip hop musical about one of the Founding Fathers. It doesn’t matter how you feel about viral phenomenons, musicals, hip hop or Founding Fathers, Hamilton is the kind of opus that will entertain, educate and punch you in the gut regardless of taste. The songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda are lyrical genius, the main characters of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton capture the human struggle between right and wrong, rationality and emotionality, with accuracy and style. The two Hamilton albums are the musical by the original broadway cast (including composer Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role) and The Hamilton Mixtape in which various artists offer their takes on the songs and themes of the musical. Music style: hip-hop, rap, musical.

On the playlist:
Aaron Burr, Sir (From the Broadway Cast)
Wait for it (From the Broadway Cast)
The Battle of Yorktown (From the Broadway Cast)
Immigrants (From the Mixtape)
I wrote my way out (From the Mixtape)
Valley Forge (Demo) (From the Mixtape)

5. Sweet Crude. This Indie pop-rock band seeks to revive the traditional sounds of French Louisiana. This is my most recent discovery and I haven’t listened to their work quite enough (yet) to distil it but it’s coming. Their music is dazzling and engaging, it’s like an old-fashioned kitchen party except that everyone can play and sing. Strongly recommended. Music style: acoustic, Indie pop-rock, folk, Americana.

On the playlist:
Parlez-nous à boire
Mon esprit

6. The Nashville soundtracks. Nashville is a TV series about the lives of a cast of music-industry types set in the city of Nashville, Tennessee. The characters include country music stars at the top of the heap (Rayna, Juliette), nobodys on their way to stardom (Scarlett, Will), nobodys looking for a break (Gunnar, Layla), the supporting cast of band members, songwriters, managers and producers (Avery, Deacon) and other hangers-on. It ran for 4 seasons on ABC before being canceled and picked-up by CMT when the fans raised enough of a ruckus to bring the show back. The fifth season kicks-off this week with a one-hour sneak-peak at the two-hour premiere scheduled for January 5th. But enough about the TV, the real main character of the show is THE MUSIC. With each season, a full-length EP is released plus single tracks for a total of (at least) 20 songs per season. And what songs! The show creator, Callie Khouri, is married to mega-producer T-Bone Burnett. The music is written for the show by an all-star buffet of Nashville’s best and brightest songwriters and was produced by Burnett first and then by Buddy Miller. The actors are doing their own singing and the music is curated to advance storylines, develop character arches and narrative exposition. Music style: Country, blues-rock, folk, Americana, acoustic, alt-country, country-pop.
It was too hard to pick the best tracks of the 150-or-so songs for the playlist so I went with my favourite combos of characters to songwriters:

On the playlist:
If I didn’t know better (co-written by John Paul White, performed by “Scarlett and Gunnar”)
No one will ever love you (co-written by John Paul White, performed by “Rayna and Deacon”)
Undermine (co-written by Kacey Musgraves, performed by “Juliette and Deacon”)
Changing Grounds (written by Gillian Welch, performed by “Rayna”)
When the right one comes along (co-written by Justin Davis, Sarah Zimmerman and Gloria Middleman, performed by “Scarlett and Gunnar”)
A life that’s good (co-written by Ashley Monroe and Sarah Siskind, performed by “Deacon”)
Lately (co-written by Ashley Monroe and Sarah Siskind, performed by “Scarlett and Gunnar”)
Heart on Fire (co-written by Kate York and Sarah Siskind, performed by “Maddie and Daphne”)
Boomtown (co-written by Maren Morris, performed by “Juliette and Luke”)
I will never let you know (co-written by Kate York, performed by “Scarlett and Gunnar”)

7. John Hiatt. I discovered John Hiatt through the Nashville soundtrack when his hit Have a little faith in me was covered by Maisy Stella and Will Chase. The album Bring the family was his first release following his sobriety. He started recording Have a little faith in me in studio with a heavy arrangement but the session was plagued by setbacks and delays. The next day, he learned of the suicide of his ex-wife and recorded the pared down acoustic version he his most widely known for. The rest is history. This album is no one-hit wonder however: every track is a hit. Music style: Folk, country, blues-rock, Americana.
On the playlist:
Have a little faith in me
Memphis in the meantime

8. Miranda Lambert. Yes. Miranda Lambert. I don’t care how you feel about over-produced blond country singers, this girl is the real deal. For sure, some of her songs are cut for commercial radio success but her early albums were critically acclaimed as well. Pick any of her albums and you will find that most of her songs swing country-country rather than pop-country. I’m partial to Platinum as her best album although Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not far behind. Music style: Country, alt-country, country pop, bluegrass.

Once again, it was hard to pick my favourite songs so I went with my favourite songwriters instead:

On the playlist:
Little Red Wagon (written by Audra Mae)
Dry Town (written by Gillian Welch)
All that’s left (written by Tom and Dixie Hall)
Gravity’s a b**ch (written by Miranda Lambert and Scott Wray)

In 2017, I’m looking forward to dig into the work of Gillian Welch. Her songwriting hits all my buttons. Otherwise, I will just float where the music leads.

What were your favorite finds of 2016? Feel free to link your Spotify Playlists in the comments and let’s chat tunes!

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