10. Incarnate — Killswitch Engage
Killswitch Engage founding vocalist Jesse Leach’s enigmatic lyrics take on a more comforting tone on the band's latest LP, Incarnate, even as the singer continues to wrestle with depression and anxiety. The energy of the their trademark metalcore sound is the perfect backdrop for these deeply personal, painfully honest, and relentlessly encouraging messages. Leach’s personal faith informs every song, while never pandering to religious sentiment.
9. Willow Springs — Michael McDermott
Once again this true American troubadour serves up a batch of stellar songs full of hard truths, late-night confessions, and a few early-morning sunrises. Throughout Willow Springs, McDermott wrestles with unmet expectations, spiritual frustrations, and harrowing self-awareness, interrupted with ever-so-brief moments of light. Fans of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young had better not come to me whining about today’s artists. McDermott is the real deal.
8. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth — Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson, 2014’s surprise breakout country traditionalist, returned in 2016 with a collection that is trippier, more soulful, and all around more satisfying than his amazing debut. Serving as a sort of road map for his baby boy, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is full of sage advice, parental optimism, and wry humor. His beloved fixation with vintage tones, ranging from cosmic country to the outlaws of the 1970s, is embellished this time out with cinematic splendor and unselfconscious abandon.
7. We’re All Gonna Die — Dawes
Here we find Dawes playing with keyboards and computers a bit more than usual, but never to the detriment of their songs. Dawes is one of those rare bands that channels unfiltered slices of the human condition without sounding the slightest bit sarcastic, cynical, or jaded. On We’re All Gonna Die, they offer an eyes-wide-open-and-occasionally-blackened form of sophisticated pop.
6. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter — Margo Price
The first time I heard Margo Price’s “Hands Of Time” I honestly thought it was some 1970s country tune I had somehow never heard before. As Price tells her all-too-true story of heartache, struggle, and desperation, it seems almost too much. Although the stories of dead-end streets, hangovers, and loss never venture very deep into religious territory, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter certainly echoes many of the darker themes of Ecclesiastes. Overtones of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash can be heard in the generous reverb and ringing pedal steel licks.
5. One Wild Life (series) — Gungor
The Revival is a celebration of sacred music through a uniquely American lens.
I’ve learned not to toss off superlatives like “genius” very often when talking about musicians, but the stunning beauty, range, intricacy, and detail of Gungor’s three-album One Wild Life collection earns it. The married couple and their compatriots have conceived of and executed a lavish set of progressive alternative rock and pop songs exploring nothing less than The Meaning Of Life. These three albums—thematically arranged around the titles Soul (actually released in late 2015), Spirit, and Body—would be right at home alongside some of the most spiritually provocative work by Peter Gabriel, Arcade Fire, or Bon Iver.
4. The Revival — Cory Henry
What jazz/gospel organist Cory Henry does on a solo keyboard is simply stunning. The Revival, his second solo outing, is an astonishing, moving, and even worshipful collection of solo B3 organ music that became, hands-down, my most-played album of the year. Henry plays the volume and tone of his B3 as masterfully as he wrangles its keys. He renders gospel songs and hymns as improvisational blues and jazz jams, while always staying grounded in the song’s original intent and meaning. The Revival is a celebration of sacred music through a uniquely American lens.
3. Sea of Noise — St. Paul & the Broken Bones
St. Paul & The Broken Bones return with a rich and diverse collection of old-school soul and R&B, with echoes of psychedelia and gospel thrown in just to send me over the moon. In the tradition of the greats like Al Green, Otis Redding, and Wilson Picket, St. Paul & The Broken Bones render a bumper crop of uplifting grooves with their stylish shoes planted firmly on the ground. On Sea of Noise, Gospel hopefulness is rendered even more powerful by the gathering darkness in the world. This is the kind of music that convinces me there’s hope for us yet.
2. Changes — Charles Bradley
Charles Bradley, 68, has been quietly churning out roots R&B music since being “discovered” by Daptone Records in 2002. By then he had been singing and performing on and off for over four decades—including a stint as a James Brown impersonator. Changes is deep in the groove of the greats, including Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Brown. The album’s dominant theme is the power and pain of love, but there is a prayerfulness and determination that resonates a subtle but effective Gospel tone.
1. Blackstar — David Bowie
I’m pretty sure David Bowie’s Blackstar would have been my album of the year even if he hadn’t passed away. Its improvisational jazz sound was the perfect backdrop for lyrics that contemplate mortality in the most immediate and personal way. “Lazarus” alone is worth the price of admission, but that song is truly just the tip of a very deep iceberg.
Honorable Mentions: A list of the best music of 2016 should also include Wilco’s Shmilco, which takes a decidedly more unplugged approach than anything in the band’s catalog. Leonard Cohen pulled a “Bowie” with his final album, You Want It Darker, reinforcing his legacy as one of the great songwriters of the era. I wrote previously on TC about Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ haunting Skeleton Tree and Radiohead’s auspicious A Moon Shaped Pool. One of the coolest modern pop records of the year was definitely Alone Together, by Nashville-based band Leagues. Check out an expansive list of 2016 releases on this Spotify playlist.