If you are a big music fan, you will most likely read many end-of-the-year articles highlighting the best of 2016. This is sort of that and sort of not. We wanted to write something that captured the best this year had to offer but we didn’t want it to be just another list or recap. Plus, any list like this comes woefully short of truly being a best-of since no one can possibly listen to every album released in a calendar year. What you will find below are the albums that stood out to us. The ones that made us think or feel or hopefully a bit of both. We have broken our end-of-the-year-review in five superlatives and hope that they do a good job of encapsulating just how good this year was, musically speaking.
To kick things off, Michael Lytle relives The Best Live Albums of 2016:
In 2014 John Mark McMillan released Borderland and that same year Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors released Medicine. These were landmark albums in the careers of these thoughtful singer/songwriters. This year both artists have released live albums that draw heavily from the aforementioned 2014 albums, but also give fans a glimpse into their entire catalog. And here at REO we celebrate those catalogs. Both artists give plenty of opportunities for their backing bands to shine and also feature their wives on stage with them or a few songs. They tackle a variety of themes with their lyrics. These songs are hopeful, but never sentimental. Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors’ Live At the Ryman and John Mark McMillan’s Live At the Knight top our list as the best live albums of 2016.
Stand out tracks for John Mark McMillan include – Love at the End, Future/Past and Heart Won’t Stop/Stand by Me.
Stand out tracks for Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors include – Fire and Dynamite, Hung the Moon and Shine Like Lightenening.
While 2016 was a really good year in music, it was not without its missteps. Next, we take a look at two albums we were really looking forward to but failed to live up to our expectations. We give you, The Most Disappointing Albums of 2016:
The Lumineers – Cleopatra. I hate to put this in our “most disappointing” category since it is not a bad record, but after their 2012 breakthrough self-titled album this one feels like a step down. The band basically made a very similar sounding record and didn’t break any new ground here. That is not always a bad thing, but with 4 years between albums I was expecting them to push themselves a bit more. Instead we got not quite as good versions of the songs on their first record. It also did not help that they took cheap shots at religious faith in multiple songs. I am sure some people were thrilled by that, I am not one of those people. – Michael Lytle
M83 – Junk. After their ambitious and genre defying double album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming released in 2011, I’m not convinced anything could have lived up to my hopes for what their next album would be. Unfortunately, Junk not only disappointed, but has yet to work for me on virtually any level. Where Hurry Up was atmospheric, synth soaked pop goodness, Junk is unnecessarily weird and awkward. It retains much of the band’s electronic sound, but loses most of the heart and soul of previous efforts. I am still giving it time to work on me but I am close to calling this one a complete bust. – Phill Lytle
Let’s pick up the mood a little, shall we? Michael Lytle tackles an area that gets overlooked too often – the lyrics. We won’t belabor the point with a bunch of flowery prose. We give you The Most Interesting Lyrics of 2016:
Sara Groves – Floodplain. It is no secret how we feel about Andrew Peterson on our site. His lyrics are poetic, poignant and beautiful. I would put Sara Groves in the same category. She does not shy away from difficult topics and never pretends to have all the answers or have it all together. Her faith comes through in every song though and the way she expresses it is always thought provoking. Check out Second Guess Girl, Signal and Floodplain.
Drive By Truckers – American Band. They have a history of terrible album covers, but don’t let that fool you. Their lyrics incredibly well crafted. Fortunately American Band has a decent cover and the lyrics might be their best yet. They delve into politics, history, social and religious issues. I disagree with many of their conclusions about these topics, but a work of art should be challenging especially when you don’t see eye to eye with the artist on everything. My favorite tracks are Ever South, Once They Banned Imagine and Ramon Casiano.
Our penultimate category deals with creativity. There were many artists that stretched themselves and pulled out all the stops when it came to crafting their albums in 2016. The following two bands just tried a little harder. Here are The Most Ambitious Albums of 2016:
Radical Face – The Family Tree: The Leaves. Radical Face is most known for their (his) 2007 song Welcome Home, Son. You have probably heard this song even if you don’t realize it since it popped up on several commercials and television shows over the last decade. In 2011, Ben Cooper the primary force behind this group started a project called The Family Tree. This project culminated in 2016 with a record called The Leaves. Over six years he released 44 songs on 4 albums telling his stories. Some characters showed up on all of these records, sometimes the parents would show up in one song and years later their children or grandchildren would show up on another song. Other times the songs were biographical. Either way they are always fascinating. Musically the songs are primarily piano led with guitar and accordion providing depth and texture. Vocally his haunted almost whispered vocals are a welcome break from all the over singing that we get on reality music shows and pop radio. On the newest record I would recommend Everything Costs, The Ship in Port and Rivers in the Dust. – Michael Lytle
Future of Forestry – Awakened To the Sound. I sort of lost my mind about this one already for the website. You can read that here. Instead of embarrassing myself anymore, I will tell you a short story. I had a friend named Bert Tippett. He worked at the College where I graduated, was a minister, and attended my church. He was older than my own father, but we bonded over movie soundtracks. We even exchanged mix-tapes – or mix-CD’s to be more precise, of our favorite film music. I still listen to the one he gave me nearly 10 years ago. He died a few years back after a long battle with illness. I can’t say this for sure, but I have a feeling he would have loved this album. I can’t help but imagine how he would have responded to the orchestral structure of the album, the string arrangements and the melodies. I would have loved to introduce him to it. I would have loved to listen to one of my favorite tracks in his office and seen him smile. That’s the sort of thing that binds my soul to music. Start with Covers You, Homeward, and On Giant’s Shoulders- Phill Lytle
Finally, we will end on the most happy note possible. Not all albums need be overly serious, complex or thematically dense. Sometimes, it is perfectly okay to just make fun music. These two albums achieved that and more. We give you The Most Enjoyable Albums of 2016:
The Head and the Heart – Signs of Light. Their 2010 self-titled debut made me pay attention. They avoided a sophomore slump with their 2013 follow up entitled Let’s Be Still. In 2016 The Head and the Heart have delivered possibly the best album of the year. It is certainly on our (very) short list for most enjoyable albums. They have taken their trademark piano driven folk sound and given it a 1980’s pop makeover. The results could have been awful but somehow it works, and with the exception of one song it works every single time. Their three lead vocalists all get a chance to take center stage and when they harmonize it is something special. They can pull it off live as well which is always a nice bonus. It is all really good, but to get an idea of their sound check out All We Ever Knew, Colors, Your Mother’s Eyes and Signs Of Light. – Michael Lytle
NEEDTOBREATHE – HARD LOVE. Read our review here. I will add a little more to avoid being accused of phoning this in. HARD LOVE is fun. From beginning to end, the album oozes attitude and charisma. The band has nothing to prove to anyone anymore, but they continue to stretch and challenge themselves with each new album. HARD LOVE is no different in that regard. They eschew complexity and nuance, for the most part, and go for immediacy and pure enjoyment. Listen to the album and be prepared to dance, smile, and sing along. Favorite tracks include: HARD LOVE, WHEN I SING, and GREAT NIGHT. – Phill Lytle
So there you have it. Hopefully you enjoyed 2016 music as much as we did. We have also included a Spotify playlist below with some of our favorite tracks from the albums above as well as other songs whose albums didn’t quite make the cut. Post your thoughts in the comment section below and then go listen to your favorite 2016 music in honor of this auspicious occasion.