Best of 2016 (Part 2)

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 (here's Part 1) aren't a conventional ranked Best-Of, but rather thirty quality records that deserve your ears' attention. Enjoy, and a incredibly belated Happy New Year to you.

 

Seth Martin // This Mountain

Released on the fateful day of the US Presidential Election, folk musician Seth Martin's new record might be the most timely of the year. Martin's music has always had a strong social conscience, but This Mountain is his most topical album ever, a scorched-earth indictment of the political and cultural mileau circa 2016. Martin touches not just on American issues like the Dakota Access Pipeline, war refugees, and police reform, but takes on injustice in his adopted home of South Korea, too, excoriating the government's coverup following the Sewol Ferry incident. And though the lyrics couldn't be more current, musically Martin is reaching far into the past, repurposing folk melodies that are rarely less than 100 years old. Maybe that's part of why his songs have the ominous ring of prophecy to them, not least when he echoes Isaiah on "It Takes a Worried Mind (To Sing a Worried Rhyme)": "It takes a mountaintop to fill a valley in".

 

Sandra McCracken // God's Highway

In 2015, singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken took a turn toward church music with an excellent record called Psalms. Laid down in a matter of days with friends gathered around a piano, it had songs like "We Will Feast in the House or Zion" that were memorable for their depth and elegant power. God's Highway is a sister album to Psalms, recorded in the same fashion, though McCracken distinguishes it with some subtle musical choices - "Trinity Song", for instance, incorporates elements of the Taize style of contemplative prayer and worship, paring back the verbiage for a more spacious and meditative feel. And on "Love Will Bring You Home", she pens some staggeringly beautiful poetry, moving again beyond the bounds of strictly congregational music : "The bridegroom sun runs across the sky/With legs so strong, he runs to meet his bride/With every sunrise/With every sunrise". No matter what genre or mode of songwriting McCracken tackles next, if it's as lovely as God's Highway, it will be more than worth following her.

 

Glowing Moses // Cosmonaut EP

First impressions are the most important, and even aside from their fantastic, why-didn't-I-think-of-that band name, these Cleveland, Ohio upstarts make a good one with their debut EP, Cosmonaut. The young outfit makes hooky, caffeinated rock n roll in the vein of Built to Spill, with scorching guitar solos and sharp production. On "Cold Ghost", frontman Cole Harmon amusingly turns the heaping-burning-coals aspect of being kind to your enemies into smack talk: "Well I've got news for you/I forgive you". There's more Glowing Moses is trying to say in these spiritually-preoccupied songs, but they're all geared toward one thing: fun.

 

Citizens & Saints // A Mirror Dimly

Citizens & Saints have a hybrid arena-rock/worship sound that they've refined significantly for their third full-length, and it stands as easily their best work yet. The Seattle band take some musical risks on A Mirror Dimly, and they pay off in spades on tracks like "Faith", a danceable number with a wobbly synth in the background that sounds like it's courtesy of nu-disco wonderboy Todd Terje. And on top of that, bandleader Zach Bolen's impassioned howl can raise goosebumps on the soaring refrains of songs like "Madness" and "Doubting Doubts". It might not seem like much to say for a genre that sees about as much innovation as Easy Listening, but in its particular niche, Citizens and Saints' A Mirror Dimly is the cream of the crop.

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Anthony Quails // Before the Bright Lights

It's the best of times and the worst of times in music these days. Artists are creating material that's more diverse and sonically sumptuous than ever before, but it's offset by lyrical poverty - a poverty that's especially pronounced in folk music and singer-songwriter fare. Chattanooga, Tennessee's Anthony Quails, though, is doing his part to keep the tradition alive, stewarding the increasingly lost art of storytelling in song. His new Before the Brights Lights is an old-fashioned country-and-folk record that takes its time and puts Quails' gentle voice front-and-center as he spins heartfelt yarns that skirt the line but never lapse into sentimentalism. Highlights are "In the Name of the Lord", told from the perspective of a medieval Crusader whose journey to the Holy Land ends with a surprising revelation, and "John Harvey Walker", which tells the story of a wrongfully-convicted death row inmate through the paradigm of the wrongfully-convicted Christ. The latter feels like something Johnny Cash could easily have written, and Before the Bright Lights is a sure thing for anyone with an soft spot for him or for thoughtful, earnest music of any genre.

 

Branches // White Flag

A California foursome that rose to fame partly for its wildly popular cover of The Darkness' "I Believe in a Thing Called Love", Branches make music defined by tight musicianship and a way with poppy, anthemic choruses. White Flag is their second full-length, a follow-up to 2012's Thou Art the Dream that transforms their sound a bit, straddling the formerly folky vibe and a newer indie-rock aesthetic. It sounds like Mumford & Sons made a record halfway between their much-ballyhooed switch from suspenders to leather jackets. It's a good fit for Branches, and there are quite a few memorable moments on the slickly-produced White Flag, like the electronically-tinged opening track "Carry", or "Sparrow", which takes lyrical cues from "His Eye Is on the Sparrow". Here's hoping that Branches can continue to push themselves sonically while writing tunes as solid as these.

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Dave Dobbyn // Harmony House

"I'm being followed by a great big ball of light", Dave Dobbyn sings in a pitched falsetto on Harmony House, his first album in eight years. The song and the album proves that the New Zealand legend still has his knack for writing songs with striking imagery and enough melodic verve to stick in your mind long after the record stops. Dobbyn might just have turned 60, but that doesn't mean he's settled into a musical rut - the songs on Harmony House are a diverse bunch, and he sings with a conviction that is captivating. The standout is the 70s-psychedelia-channeling, reverb-heavy "Waiting for a Voice", which has Dobbyn wailing like John the Baptist that Heaven is at hand; when he commands, "Get into the water, man, and lose your sin", you want to obey.

 

Half-handed Cloud // Jiminy Circuits EP

John Ringhofer aka Half-handed Cloud hasn't put out a full-length record since 2014's career highlight Flying Scroll Flight Control, but in the intevening years he's shared a few smaller, scrappier EPs, which his new 7-inch Jiminy Circuits comfortably sits next to. The EP was released through Plastiq Musiq, and for the first time it puts Ringhofer in front of a Roland RH-09 analog synthesizer (Plastiq is a specialty label dedicated to new music created with old synths). The results are winning, to say the least. Ringhofer bounces from melody to melody like an attention-deficit pinball, and his childlike singing floats among the sounds of antique electronica, delivering charming lines that will bring a smile to your face: "Show us you're the ghoul that we can trust/Listening for your whispers and your gusts". Early genre pioneers like Kraftwerk are known and beloved for their emotional impassivity, but with Jiminy Circuits, electronic music has never sounded more huggable.

 

Chris Bathgate // Old Factory EP

Ann Arbor, Michigan's Chris Bathgate took a leave of absence from the music scene for the last five years (he reportedly did a lot of hiking) and picked up some new musical tricks along the way. The five songs on Old Factory take the filled-out folk-rock template of 2011's Salt Year and add new elements like the heavy percussion and slithering, sitar-like guitar on the fantastic track "Big Ghost", or the off-kilter piano and halting strings on "Calvary". The latter is a memorably ambiguous but optimistic portrait of trauma - and life in the altered light of its aftermath: "Ain't it good to be alive/With the wound still in your side?". Old Factory leaves you wanting more, and thankfully we won't have to wait long because he's got a new LP, Dizzy Seas, dropping in May.

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Joel Brandt // For Your Weary Head EP

British Columbian songwriter Joel Brandt's new EP is dedicated to those affected by mental illness, but it will comfort anyone feeling wrung-out and exhausted by the relentless onslaught of fear, alienation, and anger on all sides. For Your Weary Head instantly recalls Everything I Long For, the classic album by Hayden, another tenderhearted Canadian depressive who trafficks in lo-fi bedroom recordings. Brandt released For Your Weary Head during Advent, and "Lullaby for Grown-ups" is an affectionate instruction manual in taking a load off for folks who are home for the holidays, while the incredibly moving "Rosemary" is a lament for sufferers of mental illness, and a reminder that humanity's problems are far more endemic than we'd like to think. "It's not war/It's not poverty", Brandt sings before meekly offering a prayer: "God, give us what we need for our heads/Not a roof but some blessed relief/Hope for tomorrow and some present peace/Just one good day and restful sleep". For Your Weary Head is no panacea for the world's woes, but it's a beautiful act of humility and burden-bearing that will bless anyone who hears it.