Best of 2016 (Part 1)

Behold! The internet's final Best-of-2016 list - published almost a quarter of the way into 2017! Spirit You All has been on a necessary hiatus the last several months but is rising back to life and ready to tackle all the great music 2017 has already offered. But first, we need to acknowledge the trove of releases from last year we didn't have time to cover. Like 2015's list, these three posts aren't a conventionally-ranked Best-Of, but rather thirty quality records that deserve your ears' attention. Enjoy, and a incredibly belated Happy New Year to you.

 

Lenny Smith // You Are My Hiding Place

Even if you've never heard of him before, you've undoubtedly felt Lenny Smith's influence as a mentor/spiritual godfather to many artists in a certain corner of the indie music world: folks like The Welcome Wagon, Sufjan Stevens, Half-handed Cloud, or most obviously the Danielson Famile, to whom he is literally dad. 75 this year, Lenny has composed literally hundreds of worship tunes, and You Are My Hiding Place is his third album to draw from that deep well of songs. With pristine production provided again by his son Daniel, this new collection features a diverse set of sounds ranging from the rollicking, Doors-like "Ho! Everyone Who Thirsts" to the joyful, whole-family sing-along hymn "With All My Heart". They're straightforward songs - almost every word is drawn directly from Scripture - but Lenny's delirious obsession with God makes them into something extremely special and lasting.

 

Cindertalk // All A Shimmer

Songwriter/composer Jonny Rodgers' use of tuned wine glasses in his music probably nets him a lot of invitations to wine tastings, but skeptical listeners would do well not to dismiss it as just a party trick. All a Shimmer is Rodgers' first full-length under his Cindertalk moniker (though he has a number of shorter releases under his belt, including the soundtrack for the 2016 Psalms short film featuring Bono and Eugene Peterson), but his aesthetic here is confident and fully-formed, with the sounds of wine glasses, tasteful electronics, and his high, reedy singing voice blending perfectly. "Mutter Mutter Mutter" is a delicious slice of minimalist electropop, and Rodgers's spare, enigmatic lyrics come to the fore on the playfully morbid "I'm Only Dying": "Don't be afraid, I'm only dying/It's not the end of the world".

 

Leonard Cohen // You Want it Darker

Like another stellar 2016 album, David Bowie's Blackstar, Leonard Cohen's final record feels like a message from beyond the grave - as much a last will and testament as a musical recording. Cohen has explored God, sex, death, and the intersection between the three on every one of his fourteen albums, but You Want It Darker, recorded in his living room by a frail, 82-year-old Cohen prior to his passing later in the year, feels especially freighted with portent. As always, Cohen's meditations are densely Biblical, and his special affinity for New Testament imagery and metaphors continues ("Better hold my tongue/Better learn my place/Lift my glass of blood/Try to say the grace"). The old grandmaster marshals every ounce of his songwriting skill on You Want It Darker, but in the end, poised to take the awesome step we all must, the aptest words he can find are a quote from the Genesis account of the Binding of Isaac: "Hineni, hineni/I'm ready, my Lord."

 

Young Oceans // Voices, Vol. 1

Young Oceans, a collective of musicians in and around Brooklyn led by songwriter Eric Marshall, have been creating an atmospheric, indie-rock-influenced style of church music that provides a welcome reprieve from the constant glut of conveyor-belt worship projects. This first volume of Voices, a series that sees the group re-recording songs from past releases with a number of guest vocalists (this installment includes Leeland and All Sons & Daughters, among others), changes sonic gears and imbues the songs with a congregational feel and a much stronger folk influence, though synth pads still abound. Even though the songs aren't new, most of the reimaginings on Voices, Vol. 1 manage to justify themselves by bringing out new colors and aspects in teach composition, and the result is well worth a listen or three. 

 

Three-Year Day Job // For the New Tenants of My Old Life

"Fake it til you make it" is the general motto for many musicians, who often prefer to keep how they pay the bills as far from their public persona as possible. Missoula, Montana's Alexander Michael Lindgren, on the other hand, makes his desk job an integral part of his schtick, donning a full suit and tie for his performances and toting his musical implements in a drab briefcase. Inside the case: a four-channel synthesizer and step sequencer, and a Game Boy. Mixing that 8-bit soundboard with gently snarling electric guitar, Lindgren's debut For the New Tenants of My Old Life is a eminently pleasant little collection of ultra-lo-fi, chiptune-inflected pop. The easygoing vibe is disarming, but Lindgren is meditating on some heavy themes - among them his father's death in 2011, and his own coming-to-faith in the ensuing years. Accordingly, New Tenants' predominant sentiments are those of acceptance - and even more, of thankfulness: "I just wanted someone to thank/For the good I have/The bad I have known/And all that is still to come."

 

The Lower Lights // Old Time Religion

For more than six years now, gospel-folk collective The Lower Lights have been excavating the Christian songbook, reupholstering hymns and classic spiritual songs with both reverence and flair. Their previous collection, A Hymn Revival: Vol. 3 was the first to feature more-eclectic song choices by modern artists like Hank Williams and Gillian Welch. Old Time Religion continues to broaden the search beyond the hymnal with a cover of Dolly Parton's "The Seeker", and a version of "Have a Talk With God" from Stevie Wonder's landmark Songs in the Key of Life. There are still, of course, stirring renditions of hymns and gospel standards - "Run On For a Long Time" and "Down to the River to Pray" hit the sweet spot of rootsy, foot-stomping gospel, and the harmonies on "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" are downright swoon-worthy. The Lower Lights have killer musical chops, to be sure, but it's their unique approach - integrating a respect for received tradition with a real, fervent urgency - that ensures these songs will remain vital far into the future.

 

Wovenhand // Star Treatment

David Eugene Edwards is a musical vagabond, and his explorations as Wovenhand over 15 years and eight albums have seen him incorporate sounds and aesthetics from all over the globe. Star Treatment, so named for its lyrical preoccupation with celestial bodies, features the heaviest incarnation of Wovenhand yet, with pronounced metal influences coming through on tracks like the thunderous opener "Come Brave". Along with Edwards' distinct braid of Southern gothic, American Indian, and darkly mystic folk styles, his writing here is even more esoteric than usual. It's a potent combination, and on the resplendent "Golden Blossom", his opaque, scriptural imagery entwines with psychedelic guitars for a revelatory climax: "No more sun, no more sea/Only he, only he, only we".

 

Brock's Folly // I Have Seen the End

The third record by Brock's Folly didn't get that name for nothing - I Have Seen the End is a self-conscious send-off for the Dayton, Tennessee quintent, tying a nice bow on a short career of earnest, seductively catchy folk rock. Like their 2014 release The Great Commoner, I Have Seen the End is preoccupied with fathers, sons, marriage, church, and the fissures in between. But it approaches those fissures with an overriding sense of hope - and sass. For example, on the closing track, you can practically hear lead singer Justus Stout smirking as he sings, "I don't know what they'll try to tell ya/But the Jesus Movement is alive and well, y'all" and "Soup kitchens are the churches of the future". It's good stuff, and it ensures that the farewell to Brock's Folly is quite a sad one.

 

Benny Hester // Benny...

In 1972, 23-year-old Benny Hester had his dreams of music stardom wrecked when a fire destroyed the masters and every printed copy of his debut album Benny..., which was supposed to introduce him to the world. Hester moved on, however, and later found success as part of the exploding CCM industry, becoming widely-known for unpasteurized 80s cheese like "When God Ran". Now Benny..., rescued and finally given a proper release almost 45 years later, provides a glimpse down a road-not-taken for Hester. Elvis' famous "TCB" or "Taking Care (of) Business" band plays backup here, fleshing out the youngster's baroque pop ditties and psych-inflected ballads that channel other post-Beatles rockers of the era, from Elton John to Neil Young. More than just a curio or an artifact, it's a solid record in it's own right, and the ellipsis that trails off in the title feels quite appropriate - like this version of Hester was cut off when he had much more to say.

 

Thrice // To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere

With To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere - the beloved post-hardcore outfit's first studio album since 2011's Major/Minor - Thrice proves it's lost none of its chemistry or cohesion over its long hiatus. The big, bone-shaking riffs and reflective interludes are back in full force, and singer Dustin Kensrue recalls the greats of stadium rock like Bono or Chris Cornell with his soulful, crystal-clear yowl. To Be Everywhere is also the band's most geopolitical album yet - "Whistleblower" references Edward Snowden, and Kensrue takes trenchant aim at American wars in the Middle East, as well as drone warfare in "Blood on the Sand" and "Death From Above". To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere doesn't break much new ground for the band, but that doesn't matter much - as long as they keep writing songs as catchy and hard-hitting as "Hurricane" and "Black Honey", they can move at whatever pace they'd like.