Best of 2016 (Part 3)

Behold! The internet's final Best-of-2016 list - published 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 Part 1 and Part 2) 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.

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Sho Baraka // The Narrative

Sho Baraka's incredible new record The Narrative could not have come at a more urgent time - anyone left feeling homeless by the prevailing, Manichaean political and religious dichotomies of our day will inhale it like oxygen. Based in Atlanta, the rapper has three ambitious albums under his belt already, and The Narrative broadens the scope even further, bristling with ideas and historical references that literally cross millenia. Like several of his Humble Beast labelmates, Baraka isn't bound by hoary conservative/progressive labels - he's preaching the Gospel here, with all its attendant implications, and his candor and wisdom are electrifying. It's not the Sho Show the whole time, though - producer Jamie Portee avails himself admirably with James Brown-channeling horns on "Soul, 1971", and Jackie Hill Perry and Lecrae contribute blistering verses to "Kanye, 2009" and "Here, 2016", respectively. For the politically alienated and the spiritually frustrated, for music fans in general, The Narrative is manna from heaven, and a bona fide masterpiece.

 

Harrison Lemke // Fertile Crescent Blues

The Mountain Goats didn't release any new music in 2016, but John Darnielle's musical progeny had a banner year. Whereas The Chairman Dances's wonderful Time Without Measure took strong cues from more recent, full-band incarnations of Darnielle's Mountain Goats, Harrison Lemke's new LP harkens back to the lo-fi era of The Coroner's Gambit or All Hail West Texas, when it was just Darnielle recording on his Panasonic boombox. A concept album about "the generations of Adam & Eve", Fertile Crescent Blues reads between the lines of Genesis, offering midrashic takes on the familiar narratives. Some of the most striking are Lemke's epilogues: the title track is a portrait of the post-Fall couple eking out subsistence in a newly broken world, while "Postdiluvian Homesick Blues" has Noah digging up drowned flood victims in his vineyard, "Skulls still adorned for their last festivals/So cruel but so beautiful/When last they sang with life". Songs like this always have to navigate between the rote and the irreverent, but Lemke nails it on Fertile Crescent Blues not because of a lack of fidelity or imagination, but a surplus of both.

 

Hiss Golden Messenger // Heart Like a Levee

M.C. Taylor has worked his fingers to the bone over six Hiss Golden Messenger releases, and his newest comes just as the years of toil have begun to pay off, a full-time music career beginning to seem viable. But the fruit of success is bittersweet - with an emphasis on the bitter - and Heart Like a Levee has Taylor dealing with the crushing guilt of a father who has to tour for long stretches of the year, asking if the career of his dreams is worth the cost to his family. Friends and collaborators from Megafaun and Bon Iver help with the arrangements on Heart Like a Levee, and Taylor's music has never sounded as lush or enchanting as in the gorgeous polyphony of strings and saxophone that closes "Ace of Cups Hung Low Band". There are no clear-cut solutions on Heart Like a Levee, but Taylor finds a way through the anguish on "Highland Grace", where he repents of being a "fool of the rule", and lets grace have its way with him, finding that "loving her was the easiest thing in the world".

 

Civilian // You Wouldn't Believe What Privilege Costs

A four-piece based in Nashville that hawks a cerebral brand of razor-sharp indie rock, Civilian makes a good impression on their debut LP for Tooth and Nail Records. Civilian's sound strongly recalls Death Cab for Cutie, though Civilian's sound hits a bit harder than Death Cab. And although frontman Ryan Alexander allows himself a Gibbardian romantic rumination or two, You Wouldn't Believe What Privilege Costs finds him venting societal and political anxieties for most of its runtime. "Reasons" voices skepticism at power grabs couched in religious language (There's reason to believe/We're a gun in the hand of a conman"), while "I Told You" is a stinging critique of rapture-ready theology: "They say, 'This beautiful garden is just a burial plot'/They couldn't be more wrong". Privilege is a solid intro to a talented band, and an effective appetite-wheter for more from them in the future.

 

Damien Jurado // Visions of Us on the Land

Dreamlike is the first word that comes to mind when trying to describe Damien Jurado's latest record, but that would be redundant - Jurado's entire Maraqopa trilogy, of which Visions of Us on the Land is the final installment, unfolds within a vision or a dream. The "plot"; as it were, is opaque (astute commentators say that's not really the point anyway), but Jurado's shining, liquid mercury voice, coupled with the textured, psychedelic soundscapes he crafts with producer Richard Swift, conjures a fantastical alternate reality that it's a pleasure to return to again and again. Visions' songs are pregnant with meaning, but it's a meaning that is only apprehensible through experience - or, as he sings, musing on what, if anything, lies beyond death: "There's only one way in/And it's through".

 

Joseph // I'm Alone, No You're Not

The late 90s were the Age of Hanson, but with the emergence of acts like First Aid Kit, Haim, and now Joseph, the late 2010s are apparently the Age of the Sister Group. Allison, Meegan, and Natalie Closner hail from Portland, Oregon, and their "genetically perfected harmonies" went a long way toward making their debut, 2014's Native Dreamer Kin, a memorable one. Their sophomore effort, I'm Alone, No You're Not, recruits famous Saddle Creek alum and Monsters of Folk member Mike Mogis as producer, and it pays off in spades, adding layers of studio polish to the sisters' songs, which swing effortlessly between delicate refrains and full-throated anthems. The Job-inspired "Whirlwind" is a terrific Florence and the Machine impression, but it's on the fantastic "Blood & Tears" where the sisters perfectly triangulate their adrenaline-shot sound, a declaration of love that's less romantic confessional than bellowing war cry.

 

David Åhlén // Hidden Light

Swedish musician David Åhlén's lovely 2016 record Hidden Light is the elusive, unicorn-like heir to a rarified musical tradition, one with no agreed-upon name, but which we can informally dub "Difficult Worship Music". Devotional music is commonly (and not without reason) accommodated to the lowest-common-denominator, and so the pantheon of Difficult Worship Music - which could alienate the listener with left-field musical choices, strange sonics, or a lack of resolution to its melodies - is small indeed (Glen Galaxy's 2011 album Thankyou probably stands as this miniscule genre's masterwork). Hidden Light is far less abrasive than Thankyou, however, with ethereal harmonies that float, fog-like, through Åhlén's sparsely-orchestrated compositions. The opening track "Morning Prayer" is a nuanced meditation where Åhlén's invitation to "invade my heart" is backed by a trumpet as gentle and delicate as spun gold. Despite its total lack of chorus, you're likely to hear its tones drifting on the liminal edges of your mind after the first few times you hear it. The album's other songs diverge from that sound significantly, but all have the same experimental DNA, earning Hidden Light a well-deserved place in the DWM Hall of Fame - hopefully Åhlén will contribute again soon.

 

The Gray Havens // Ghost of a King

Husband-and-wife duo David and Licia Radford have had quite the meteoric career over the last few years. As The Gray Havens, they released a well-received EP, followed by an accomplished debut LP in 2015, both of which were grounded by strong songwriting fundamentals and a direct and sweeping folk-pop sound. 2016's Ghost of a King ups the sonic ante once again, with frequent Andrew Peterson collaborator Ben Shive on the boards, putting a shellack of gleaming studio polish on the Radfords' messianic visions. But the aspect of Ghost of a King the Gray Havens deserve the most credit for is "Diamonds and Gold", a CHVRCHES-style electropop track that couldn't seem more ill-advised but somehow turns out goofily fun. Kudos to David Radford for the attitude he puts on those half-rapped vocals - that's true bravery right there.

 

Bill Mallonee // Slow Trauma

Bill Mallonee's electric guitar was part of what made Vigilantes of Love such a revelation to listeners in the 90s, but in the years since, his heavily acoustic solo records have turned deeply poetic lyricism and classic Americana atmosphere into the hallmarks of what we think of when we think Bill Mallonee. Slow Trauma puts the spotlight back on Mallonee's electric guitar chops in a big way, and they don't disappoint. The songwriter has a tragedian streak a mile wide, and Slow Trauma is packed with tales of aimless, heartbroken wanderers of the American West. Take the depressed, melancholic "Doldrums in Denver", where every instrument sounds mired in molasses, or the phenomenal, layered weave of guitars in the last minute or so of "Only Time Will Tell". It's a song you wish would just roll on and on, like the train tracks that bear Slow Trauma's weary passengers onward, into the slowly setting sun.

 

STREAKING IN TONGUES // Life Support

It's appropriate that the trailer for the new record from STREAKING IN TONGUES is a clip from The Exorcist III; Life Support is the sound of a man fighting off the devil. Ronnie Ferguson's father died when Ronnie was in high school, and when the 34-year-old songwriter and bandleader of STREAKING IN TONGUES relocated to the backwoods of northern Michigan - hours away from friends and bandmates - his long-submerged depression and grief returned with a vengeance. Life Support is a harrowing chronicle of the period, played and recorded almost entirely by Ferguson himself in his bedroom, and the 12 ramshackle, experimental tracks recall both Elliott Smith and Daniel Johnston in their raw interiority and desperation. This is staring-into-the-abyss stuff, and on songs like "Devil in My Ear", the abyss has grown teeth and claws and is beating down the bedroom door. And though it's an album that's swollen with pain, it's gilded with a hope against hope that God is actually real. Ronnie Ferguson has made an incredibly intimate, idiosyncratic record in Life Support, but on the heartbreaking, out-of-joint lament "Born to Bruise", he's getting at something universal when he sings, "I've gotta believe or I'll scream".