Music is truly an amazing thing. It means so many things to so many people. Some people, like me, have such strong feelings that we have the need to tell everyone. In today’s digital vastness, discovering new music is as easy and as hard as it has ever been, with the staggering amount of music being both enticing in possibilities and intimidating in scope. With that in mind, no “Best of List” really can whittle everything down into a pocket-size reference of the year; there is just too much great music that didn’t cross my path to believe I listened to all of the best stuff. Really, this is just a list of the music I really dug that came out this year. It is as simple as that. If you take a listen, you may find out what I am talking about.
JJ Grey & Mofro: “Ol’ Glory”
JJ Grey has one of the most passionate deliveries in music and “Ol’ Glory” might be the album that showcases his talent the most. He doesn’t sing as much preach on the bombastic title track, with the band building the relentless wall of sound around Grey’s performance. His voice is a revelation on the uplifting “Everything Is A Song” and a beacon of tenderness on “Light A Candle.” Along with his tried and true pipes is the ever-reliable Mofro, which harmonizes so well with Grey’s sensibilities to create honest, soulful music that can tug on your heart and move you on the dance floor. Seven quality albums in and the band is just hitting its stride, which can only lead to brighter days.
The Punch Brothers: “Phosphorescent Blues”
“Phosphorescent Blues” by the Punch Brothers is so obviously grand, moving and timeless, it seems to need to be displayed in the halls of a museum. The album is intricately balanced and expertly crafted with influences from classical, bluegrass, country and pop. Much has been made of the band’s classical stylings and how it has taken bluegrass to new territory, with its latest offering being the sharpest in its abundance of finely woven compositions, from the fluttering “Familiarity” to the tender cover of composer Claude DeBussy’s “Passpied.” But most band members started as classically trained musicians before they dipped their toes in the bluegrass, so it feels almost as if they are returning to their roots, rich with knowledge and understanding of different music. It gives songs such as the revealing “My Oh My” and infectious “Magnet” room to occupy their own unique spaces. The talent coming through the speakers is so apparent that you will find yourself coming back to this album again just to marvel at it.
Scott Pemberton Trio: “Timber Rock”
The emphasis on deciphering every lyrical twist or shift in time signature in music criticism sometimes hurts the enjoyable spirit of music. Scott Pemberton’s “Timber Rock” is a reminder that some music is just fun. The bearded guitar ninja is just a naturally enjoyable dude and his funky Pacific Northwest vibe gives such charm to his most accomplished record to date. He dabbles in some surf guitar on “Grieg,” a little elevated grunge on “Prudence” and skips all over the frets on the groovy “One Time.” Pemberton has a joyful spin on the world and the album has the spirit of a repurposed red Beach Cruiser with colorful streamers on the handlebars, Christmas lights on the frame and other curious knick-knacks strolling through the streets of Portland. “Timber Rock” is as natural a manifestation of a person’s soul as anything usually put to record, and as Pemberton proudly states on the album “This is what I do!”
My Morning Jacket: “The Waterfall”
My Morning Jacket does not like to rush into recording. Since 2005’s “Z,” the band has only put out two albums, with this year’s magnificent “The Waterfall” being the most recent. The band’s captivating music is born from somewhere deep in its members’ souls, not something commodified easily on a whim, and “The Waterfall” rises like a phoenix from the ashes of frontman Jim James’ relationship with a longtime partner. At its heart, the album is a crippling breakup record, with songs “Get The Point,” “Big Decisions” and the angelic “Only Memories Remain” working through some of those wounds. But it;s also an album about the universal struggle to come to grip with your existence in the world, in the form of the engrossing mini-epics “Spring (Among The Living)” and “In It’s Infancy (The Waterfall).” “The Waterfall” feels completely tapped into the human condition and the band’s stirring testimony on the album is one of the best things My Morning Jacket has put to record.
Khruangbin: “The Universe Smiles Upon You”
Not many albums can literally move you out of your space and transport you somewhere new, but Houston’s Khruangbin does just that on its celestial “The Universe Smiles Upon You.” The cosmic blues and pinks emanating from the galaxy above on the album’s cover are painted by the deft hands of guitarist Mark Speer, bassist Laura Lee and drummer D.J., who mix a delightful influence of 1960s and 1970s Thai funk and the members’ roots in gospel music. The mostly instrumental songs do have a spiritual essence to them that make them feel suspended in the atmosphere. “Little Joe and Mary” is as calming as an evening breeze as you star-gaze and the sublime “White Gloves” is a meditation on life’s more vulnerable moments. The band gives so much space for the songs to develop on their own and this patience gives the album a sensational clarity to it. Khrungabin is sending out gorgeous signals to the universe and it is responding in kind.
Jason Isbell: “Something More Than Free”
A picture is worth a thousand words but Jason Isbell can paint a portrait of a person’s whole life in far fewer. He has developed into one of the most gripping songwriters of this generation and “Something More Than Free” somehow matches the storytelling mastery of his breakout effort, “Southeastern.” He describes the optimism of a life riddled with hardship on “If It Takes A Lifetime” and staying true to your own path on “The Life You Choose.” What is amazing about Isbell is that the characters in his songs are presented with no judgement or spin; they are just brutally honest snapshots of the lives these people are living, even when he turns the narrative on his own life in the sweeping “Children of Children,” an ode to his and his wife’s mothers. There is a lot of humanity in Isbell’s work, especially when chronicling life’s rawest moments. In those moments there is nothing more comforting than Isbell’s guitar and stories on “Something More Than Free.”
Phil Cook: “Southland Mission”
“Southland Mission” has been a long time in the making for Phil Cook. For years he has been a shining example of the proverbial team player in bands Megafaun and The Shouting Matches. After years and years of work doing stuff in the name of other bands, “Southland Mission” is the glowing flag flying from Cook’s tiny fort in the North Carolina woods. If you think of a mission as being a refuge from the outside world meant to cultivate one’s own spiritual path, then nothing better describes what Cook is doing on this album. He sounds so comfortable in the joyful “Ain’t It Sweet?” and you can picture him sporting a similar grin that is captured on the cover of the album while riding the gospel tide of “1922.“ It is spiritual record, not only in the album’s rootsy sound that combines gospel, blues, and folk in a soothing concoction on songs such“Great Tide” and “Anybody Else,” but also in the feel of the music, which can only elicit smiles. “Southland Mission” is a realization of journey that still has many surprises left ahead and the album is Cook’s greatest achievement because it captured who Cook is as both a musician and person.
The Wood Brothers: “Paradise”
The ability to both tell great stories and provide an interesting and engaging musical soundtrack is a skill most bands don’t have. They either have to opt for a focus on the lyrics or the music.
There are a only a few who can excel at both, with The Wood Brothers being one of them. They exemplify this handily on the amazing “Paradise,” wrestling with the idea of searching for paradise with music that swings hard to the influences of blues and folk. Brothers Oliver (guitar) and Chris Wood (bass) are joined by newly minted permanent member and multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix on the album, and their varied sensibilities give movement to the rootsy “Raindrop” and the rousing “Snake Eyes,” which could come off as more routine Americana numbers in different hands. “Without Desire” is the album’s crown jewel as it ruminates on the importance of desire in life with a jangly rhythm that is as irresistible as it is filthy. The Wood Brothers can do it all and “Paradise” shows they do it in such a unique way.
Shye Ben-Tzur, the Rajasthan Express and Jonny Greenwood: “Junun”
On paper “Junun,” the collaborative album between Israeli composer Shye Ben-Tzur, a collective of Indian musicians dubbed the Rajasthan Express and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, doesn’t exactly come off the page as working combination. It is quite a hurdle to combine the differing musical worlds of Western instrumentation and Eastern traditions, especially since the music is based in multiple cultures found in India, some in direct conflict of each other. But “Junun” is not about conflict, it is about harmony. Electronic blips mesh with the trilling flute on “Kalandar” and drum machines powers a relentless rhythm of percussion and horns on the electric title track. The musicians are very respectful of what everyone is bringing to the table and nurture the unique journey they are making together with an ear for the commonality they share. “Junun” is an inspiring work that is aiding to bridge the gap between what we think is possible and what is possible.
Promised Land Sound: “For Use and Delight”
From the opening sprightly strums of the guitar on Promised Land Sound’s sophomore effort “For Use and Delight,” it seems the band is reaching for bright light of the shimmering horizon. The album is a stunning showcase of a young band doing its damnedest to make a stake in this world. It brings up those restless feelings of branching out and questioning one’s path. The Tennessee lads took significant strides from their first album to create affecting rock and roll tinged in the pastoral hue of wide open spaces. “Through The Seasons” drifts on twinkling guitars and organs that hold you softly in their arms and “Within Sight” feels like the last waning streaks of light in a sunset. The songs have a surprising depth to them for a band so young and they flow well to create a cohesive album. It is music you put on during a road trip to help your mind wander and process your journey through life.