Top Five Records of 2016
Refortification and regeneration are the results when new music possesses the power to excite and inspire. If the unearthed source of artistic enlivenment comes from a familiar face and voice, it manages to give assurance and affirmation – somehow it enforces an assumption that the world is right, still full of promise and potential. When the source is a stranger, it opens up a new world for exploration. That world can exist as a charming, small town; a pleasurable destination for a weekend getaway, but not exactly fit for permanent residence, or it can function as an entirely new country with the possibility for endless search and discovery.
The year of 2016 was a particularly strong one in music. Reissues and remastered collections, like Elvis Presley’s Way Down in The Jungle Room boxset of 1976 and ‘ 77 recordings, Machine Gun, the full concert performance of Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys at the Filmore Music Festival, and the commemorative edition of Steve Earle’s Guitar Town, managed to make me fall in love with old companions all over again.
The Righteous Hillbillies released a powerful new exhibition of their Southern Rock steamroller – Two Wheels Down a Lost Highway, while their former guitarist, Kev Wright, went solo with a daring and brilliant collection of singer/songwriter, Americana story songs on Journey Road. Sturgill Simpson proved himself a master of the Americana genre with his major label debut, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The Ghosts of Highway 20, meanwhile, demonstrated that Lucinda Williams is a veteran of alternative country excellence whose model any newcomer should seek to emulate.
Another adept expert in country creativity, Ronnie Dunn, continued to prove that he can make great music outside the commercial juggernaut, Brooks & Dunn, with the release of his third solo record, Tattooed Heart.
Gary Rossington, one of rock’s greatest guitarists, and his wife, Dale Rossington – a gifted and spirited vocalist who brings the soulful gospel shout, reminiscent of Tina Turner, to her delivery – stepped outside their own artistic sanctuary – Lynyrd Skynyrd – to release Rossington, a dynamic and diverse collection of moving songs in the rock, country, gospel, and blues genres.
The competition was delightfully tough in the effort to compile a ranking of this year’s music. With great uncertainty, here is my final enumeration of the year’s five best original music releases.
1. Hardwired to Self-Destruct – Metallica: The heavy metal masters never stopped making great music, contrary to all of the boring bromides that the genre’s purists repeat without a scintilla of self-awareness. Their 2016 double album, however, is a masterpiece that surpasses the reliably great work they have produced over the past two decades. James Hetfield, lead singer and chief songwriter, started the project with the ambition to officiate a wedding between the best elements of Kill ‘Em All and “The Black Album.” With mature lyrics of introspection, heavy riffs, brooding bass lines, extended jams of hard rock abandon, unpredictable solos, and musical diversity, the entire band succeeds in the delivery of a timeless record.
2. Let Me Get By – The Tedeschi Trucks Band: One of the greatest gifts to music to greet the ears of anyone with taste, in decades, is The Tedeschi Trucks Band. The combination of Susan Tedeschi’s passionate and poignant vocals – stunning in their depth, range, and strength – and the soulful and tender guitar virtuosity of Derek Trucks would seem too ambitious even in fantasy. But it is reality, and their music, within minutes, can make me dance and cry. Their third record, Let Me Get By, enhances their evolution of The Allman Brother and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishman into a more modern incarnation of soul-blues with a big band. “Anyhow,” “Right On Time,” and title track evince the band’s ability to inject ecstasy into their art, while “Crying Over You” and “I Want More” further assert Tedeschi Trucks’ role as top tier jam band.
3. The Marcus King Band – The Marcus King Band: One of the best musical moments of 2016 is the emergence of a new world to explore; an early master of fusion – The Marcus King Band, claiming as leader the criminally talented, twenty year old Marcus King on lead vocals and guitar. Much like The Tedeschi Trucks Band, King crafts an enormous sound. His band boasts of a horns section, organ player, bass, drums, and his own by turns blistering and tearful lead guitar. His vocals have the soulful rasp of Wilson Pickett in the upper register of Daryl Hall. There is not a moment wasted on the record, and surely producer Warren Haynes, is partially responsible for its greatness of slide guitar rock, Stax-like soul, and psychedelic jam band blues. It is impossible to imagine King creating a stronger first impression, and his band’s self-titled debut acts as an invitation to a party of seemingly boundless potential.
4. Like an Arrow – Blackberry Smoke: Southern Rock is a genre that has struggled for champions since the 1980s, but as long as Blackberry Smoke can plug a guitar into the amplifier, it will continue to thrive. After the disappointment of the overly produced and softened approach of Holding All the Roses, Blackberry Smoke returns to aggressive form on their fourth record, Like an Arrow. Hard rock, country, and funk all manage to meet under the direction of a band that advances its mastery of rock ‘n’ roll on the stage and in the studio. Although the record does not maintain the momentum of Blackberry Smoke’s best album, The Whippoorwill, it is a consistently raucous, rollicking, and ribald presentation of contemporary Southern Rock greatness. “Waiting For The Thunder” and “Sunrise in Texas” are among the best songs Blackberry Smoke has released.
5. Hollow Bones – Rival Sons: Rival Sons has become one of the best rock bands in America. Jay Buchanan, on lead vocals, is a rare contemporary singer who has the voice of Paul Rodgers, while Scott Holiday plays guitar with the dark intensity of Black Sabbath and the blues swagger of The Rolling Stones. Their new record takes them beyond their influences, and showcases a successful aim at innovation. The epic title track is in the running for the band’s greatest song, while their inspired reinterpretation of “Black Coffee,” shows attractive versatility. Hollow Bones is a record that shakes the listener down to their bones.