It's been a looooong time coming. When I made this list early in January, I kept pondering on if I actually wanted to release my yearly write up on it. Weeks passed, I became busy, and then the new year and the reflection of the past suddenly lost its place in my everyday life. Just the other day, while cleaning up some files I had been saving that I no longer need, I ran across this and figured, "it's never too late". A great life motto, yes, but also a key to sharing the past year in music for me. It's been a whirlwind, and i've seen my taste in sound continue to grow. I welcomed jazz back into my life early in 2015, and I began to finally come around on vocal tracks over electronics. Not quite to the EDM level yet, but hey... small steps. Sadly, neither of those genres appear on this list (let's be real... the best jazz revolves around the classics and/or Afternoon In Paris) but, there are a few albums that might surprise you on here. So here it is, my favorite 20 albums of 2016.
20. Leon Bridges Coming Home
Release Date: June 23, 2015
Label: Columbia Records
LIYL: Sam Cooke, Bill Withers, Michael Kiwanuka
Soul made its return to the mainstream this year, and it was carried on the shoulders of Grammy-nominated Texan Leon Bridges. I found the same type of hope in a soul revival that I did when I first heard Michael Kiwanuka a few years back -- but Bridges takes it a step further. With sounds that could fit right in with the best of the 50's or 60's, I can only hope that Bridges continues to shape the new-soul era the way that D'Angelo has come to define neo-soul. Leon... you might just be the saving grace for a genre lost. My only complaint is how short the album is. The songs, some of which are hard pressed to hit 2:20, just tend to blend some, but I guess the feeling of wanting more can be construed as a good thing. Develop, grow, and album two could be the official soul revival tour.
19. Bryson Tiller T R A P S O U L
Release Date: September 25, 2015
Label: RCA Records
LIYL: Travi$ Scott, Miguel, PARTYNEXTDOOR
T R A P S O U L is an album that kind of blindsided me and came out of nowhere. Not that I consider myself a R&B aficionado by any stretch, but most of the time I can say i've at least heard of an artist. Bryson literally came out of nowhere and was like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of shitty R&B for me, and I quickly jumped on the bandwagon of praise for the crooning, soulful R&B blended with moments of hip-hop. "Don't" became a hit towards the end of the year and early into 2016, but for me it's "Exchange" that highlights the album. One of the better debuts of any genre this year, and i'm excited to watch what Bryson does with a new found fame and fanbase.
18. Braids Deep in the Iris
Release Date: April 28, 2015
Label: Arbutus Records
LIYL: Sharon Van Etten, Purity Ring, Future Islands
A shockingly heavy-yet-uplifting album. With songs that deal with rape/rape culture ("Miniskirt"), that ghostly feeling of missing someone/something that you shouldn't miss ("Taste"), and even moments of gender equality and women's rights. Oh, and there is a song that deals with getting a dog to ease loneliness. Are you sold yet? Know that this is an album that, at times, can be uncomfortable to listen to due to the lyrical nature. But it's a welcome step outside of comfortableness. Do you enjoy CHVRCHES and indie synth glam pop strung with powerful messages and solid musicianship? Pitchfork gave it a mildly strong review, which says something because Pitchfork never gets anything a good rating. I think if you give the song below a go and you enjoy it, you will truly enjoy the uniqueness of Braids and the messages that they're sharing.
17. James Bay Chaos and the Calm
Release Date: March 23, 2015
Label: Republic Records
LIYL: Hozier, Passenger, Milky Chance
James Bay, sir, you made a pretty rad album. An album that, yes, reminds me of Hozier at times, but an album that is impressive and addictive nonetheless. The roots revival is in full effect, and it's great to see the blend of folk/americana/roots rock all churn into one, and Hozier and Bay are leading the pack to mainstream success. Now if we can just get the unknown Kaleo into the mainstream this coming year, we'll be doing well. The reason Bay and this album finds itself higher on the list is merely because a lot of the songs I love on the album were actually released on EPs in 2014 - so the polish and shine of "new" has worn just a bit. But even those songs, like "Move Together" and the mega hit "Let It Go" still strike my fancy. Which is partly why this album even made the list. The other reason is on the strength of songs like "Incomplete" and "Need The Sun to Break", which are vulnerable songs that any hopeless romantic can relate to. I'm thinking Bay and Hozier need to collab. Might I suggest HoBay? Or JaHo? No? Ok.
16. The Brilliance Brother
Release Date: February 17, 2015
LIYL: Young Oceans, Paper Route, I Am They
Powerful album. I have been keeping an eye on the "other" Gungor brother since 2012 and the Lent album, and to finally hear the finished product of Brother was well worth the wait. Polished, well-crafted, and a true testament to the powers of music and faith. "Does You Heart Break", the song that made me a fan back in 2012, makes a triumphant return on this album, revamped a bit from the Lent days. The song pairs nicely with the powerful "Brother", the awe-inspiring "Yahweh", and the very Paper Route-esq "Make Us One". This is an album that I know I will revisit for years on in, and I know it's an album that will continue to bless me and others with every listen. Thank you, The Brilliance, for a brilliant album.
15. Amber Run 5AM
Release Date: April 20, 2015
Label: RCA Victor
LIYL: Racing Glaciers, Bastille, Kodaline
Amber Run did something that is quite difficult: they gave me my favorite song of the year. There were some truly great competitors (Wombats "Greek Tragedy", Volunteers "Somebody's Everything", and 28 others that can be listened to on my EOTY Top 30) but Amber Run's "5AM" takes the crown. I don't know what it is about the song, but just something about it resonated so profoundly with me and I remember binging on the song numerous times throughout the year. Which, if you know me, isn't something I typically do. The remainder of the album is strong, and the Brit indie rockers showcase their sound and are poised to make waves with follow up. We can only hope that it's chalked full of songs in the vein of "5AM".
14. Foals What Went Down
Release Date: August 28, 2015
Label: Warner Music UK
LIYL: Bloc Party, Young The Giant, Two Door Cinema Club
Foals have always been a band that I have strange fascination with. I remember hearing "Olympic Airways" back when and a year or so later "Spanish Sahara" and loving them both, and then I remember hearing songs like "Inhaler" and going crazy because of how awesome it was. However, each and every time i'd check out the album this hit or miss feeling would resonate. So when What Went Down was released, I didn't expect much. Turns out my expectation was blown away. "Mountain at my Gates", "London Thunder", "A Knife in the Ocean" are all standout tracks that bring about a sense of maturity and, for the first time, a sense that "their sound" has been discovered in full. Indie rock fans, eat your heart out with this album.
13. Alabama Shakes Sound & Color
Release Date: April 21, 2015
LIYL: The Black Keys, Benjamin Booker, Gary Clark Jr.
Look, criticize me for being influenced by others on this one. The first album, Boys and Girls, is a fun listen, but for me it wasn't anything amazing. Unique and fresh, sure. I heard the potential in their sound, but I never thought this band would have mainstream success. Sound & Color dropped in April, and I took an entire 180 on the band. Brittany Howard is one of those talents that comes about every blue moon, and I guess the potential for success was lost on me a bit with the first album. However, it's impossible to miss with songs like "Don't Wanna Fight", "Sound & Color", and "Miss You". The entire offering that Sound & Color gives is a sense of unabashed joy. This is band primed to stay around for some time and to be the trendsetters in blues rock.
12. Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly
Release Date: March 15, 2015
Label: Top Dawg/ Interscope Records
A cliche album to have on an EOTY list? Maybe. But it's deserving of every single list it's on. I don't have much to say that hasn't already been said by critics who are way better with words than I am, but I will echo the praise that this album is pretty brilliant. My buddy, Ryan, will forever remind me of this since I like to claim a lot of lesser artists are better than KDot. In reality, though, Kendrick is truly the king of the game at the moment and if Good Kid set the table, Butterfly brought everyone around it to say grace and thank the music gods above for this rap savior. Yes, i use those words loosely, but King Kendrick is bringing something new to the rap game that the game has been lacking for years. To quote the one and only DJ Khaled - "they don't want us to have Kendrick. LLLLLLIIIIIOOOOOONNNNNNN"
11. Coldplay A Head Full of Dreams
Release Date: December 4, 2015
LIYL: Non-Depressed Coldplay
Ahhhh Coldplay, how I love you. Even if you take a lot of crap during the Super Bowl halftime show, I still love you. I remember hearing you on MTV one day circa something like 2000/1 as a "artist to watch" when the "Yellow" video was released/MTV still had something even remotely to do with music, and i've been hooked since. You have written some of my favorite albums and songs, and you continue to spark my interest album after album. Ghost Stories was a rebirth of our love after you let me down with Mylo, and you showed me that I can trust you fully again with A Head Full of Dreams. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, it's just so lovely to hear that mixture of traditional Coldplay and the visionary side of Coldplay. Not much to say other than this is a great, joyful album that makes my heart happy every time I spin it. That is usually a great sign of a lasting album.
10. Avalanche City We Are For the Wild Places
Release Date: July 3, 2015
Label: WM Australia
LIYL: The Oh Hellos, Angus Stone, Ben Howard
I swore up and down a few years back that Avalanche City was poised to be a breakthrough after the release of Our New Life Above the Ground. While the album propelled him to great heights in his native Australia, the album never saw the actual light of day in the US outside of a few songs appearing in TV shows. Fast forward a few years and it's another tragedy of epic proportions that this guy is not getting love in the US. His sound is infectious, with notes of Ben Howard styled guitar playing and hints of indie folk singer/songwriter. The excitement I have for this guy reminds me of that feeling I got for Mumford prior to Mumford becoming what we all know Mumford as today. We Are For the Wild Places is an empowering journey of happy-go-lucky songwriter pop. "Rabbit", "Wild Places I", "The Midnight" are all gems that could stand their own ground as a single. "Inside Out" has that radio-ready sound, but from here all we can do is watch from afar, because it appears Avalanche City isn't going to start making waves in the US just yet. But, hop on the fan train now for when the time comes.
09. Dustin Tebbutt Home
Release Date: September 18, 2015
Label: Narvik Records
LIYL: Bon Iver, James Vincent McMorrow, Jose Gonzalez
What a perfect fall album Home is. Tebbutt had a big 2015 opening for the likes of Missy Higgins and Hozier and doing some international festival shows, but the real bright spot was his offering of Home, a mini album that was inspired by a move to back to his hometown of Sydney, Austrailia. Listening to this album is like taking a worldly adventure without ever putting the headphones down or leaving the comfort of a warm blanket. "Harvest" was written during his travels through Norway, "Home" and "Wolves Are Waiting" take a look at the journey one takes back home, and "Silk" deals with intricately weaving vulnerable moments together in a relationship to make something uniquely powerful. Don't be afraid to curl up on a couch with this album and just let it seep into your soul. If you love the minimalist-indie-folk genre or the likes of the artists listed above and/or others like Ben Howard, Asgeir, London Grammar, Vancouver Sleep Clinic, you will surely love Tebbutt and this album. For me, this was the perfect fall-into-winter album, and I spent many of nights sipping on coffee and amaretto with this disc playing.
08. Chris Stapleton Traveller
Release Date: May 5, 2015
Label: Mercury Nashville
LIYL: Jamey Johnson, The Steeldrivers, the movie Crazy Heart
I once heard this random song that a friend of mine played for me, who is a well-known songwriter in Nashville and in the country music scene, and was blown away. This was probably three years ago and I remember it to this day because, lyrically, that song was so powerful. Turns out, years later, it would become one of the songs on Stapleton's debut album, Traveller. That song, "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore", stuck with me from the early demos and when I rediscovered it years later, I was floored by how perfect of a story it still was. Country music has always, for me, been about storytelling. With the bro country epidemic, those stories are at a premium nowadays, but thank goodness for Stapleton and his old soul. About a year ago, I also became fascinated with a cover of "Whiskey and you" by an artist named Jason Eady. As I began to learn how to play it and, as I often do with song that impact me, research it, I discovered that Stapleton was actually the songwriter behind it when Tim McGraw cut it all those years ago. While Eady's version still moves me and is my favorite, i'm thankful for the offering that Stapleton provided, and i'm thankful that the dark, old school country sound is back. We need more Jamey Johnson's and Stapleton's in country music today. Plus, if it's good enough for JT to back, it's probably good enough for me to give a fair shake. Here's to Stapleton, and may we all toast a bit of Tennessee Whiskey to him and his excellent 2015.
07. Folly and the Hunter Awake
Release Date: May 26, 2015
Label: Independent Release
LIYL: Bear's Den, Lord Huron, Seryn
Here is another one of those albums that you more than likely haven't heard, because it never a proper US release. However, the Canadian band released one hell of an album in 2015. If you enjoy the sounds of Sigur Ros, that atmospheric mid-tempo sound, there is a good chance you'd dig this album. While that can play as a strength or a weakness, I find that, at times, sparseness relaxing. Why rewrite the cinematic tones and formula for a great sound when you've perfected it? Give "Science" a listen and be moved, or take in the addicting sounds of "Arrows". Whichever avenue you take, I hope you find as much joy in this album as I did this past summer.
06. Sufjan Stevens Carrie & Lowell
Release Date: March 31, 2015
Label: Asthmatic Kitty
LIYL: Andrew Bird, Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes
For the first time since Illinois, Stevens came through with an album I love. The Age of Adz was a nice listen but, for me, nothing more. It wasn't Illinois or Seven Swans, two albums I grew up loving in high school/college. Needless to say, I was excited to hear Stevens newest offering, but I didn't expect it to be so good. I didn't expect it to rival Seven Swans. But when you dive deeper into the backstory of the album and begin to understand and see that this was an album Stevens wrote about the passing of his mother who had many mental health issues, the outlook of the album truly takes a new light. In the same way that William Fitzsimmons made me fall in love with him all those years ago singing about his mom and her guide dog, Stevens made me rediscover the pure joy his music brings to me, even with songs that carry heavy subject matters. Do yourself a favor and listen to this album closely. Listen to the words, understand the songs, and don't be afraid to have a gut check and to step into Stevens world for a bit. Trust me, you will appreciate the album a lot more.
05. The Bros. Landreth Let It Lie
Release Date: January 26, 2015
Label: Slate Creek Records
LIYL: The Brothers Osborne, Anderson East, Paradise Valley-era John Mayer
Take a bit of blues influence of Anderson East, some of the country grit and grime that The Brothers Osborne carry, and the guitar sound of John Mayer and you have Let It Lie. I remember talking to a friend about this album last year and telling them that it was the album John Mayer wishes Paradise Valley would have been, but alas, it's The Bros. Landreth and their Canadian blues americana (can you stylize americana if you're from Canada?) that succeeded in that sound. Nashville is starting to take notice, and big things are to come, but for now, get in early while you can and enjoy the beautiful "Greenhouse", the sensual, bluesy "Made Up Mind", or even their twangy version of Calvin Harris' "How Deep Is Your Love". One of the most talented groups i've encountered of late, they have multidimensional written all over them, and I truly believe there is something for everyone with this album and with their sound.
04. Johnny Rain 11
Release Date: January 20, 2015
Label: ODD Dream Republic
LIYL: Frank Ocean, House of Balloons-era The Weeknd, JMSN
11 was an album that truly came out of nowhere for me. I had never heard of Johnny Rain until he appeared in my inbox one day. On a whim, I gave it a go and since that day have been so moved by this offering. It's a bold album, one that draws on Frank Ocean and borderlines on The Weeknd pre-pop-superstar-status. "A World of 100" and "TEN" have some of the best R&B sounds over a looped guitar i've heard in a long time, "22 Halo" has an atmospheric haunt to it that is perfectly balanced by the Ocean-like vocals, and "Harveston Lake" has a heartbreakingly beautiful vibe that is carried through with a choral-like echo, and "Tea and Thoughts" reminds of Miguel while delivering a spoken word element that everyone should hear. Watch out for Johnny Rain in 2016, he's dropping singles and mixtapes left and right, and before long might be on top of the game. Not to mention, he turned down an offer to join Drake's OVO. Mad respect for a guy who wants to be self made and is going about it the right way.
03. Ben Rector Brand New
Release Date: August 28, 2015
Label: Aptly Named Records
LIYL: Mat Kearney, Dave Barnes, Sleeping at Last
One of those feel good albums that you can put on with any mood. Rector has always had that songwriter niche on lock down, but Brand New is exploding him to new heights. The title track is finding its way onto radio airwaves, iTunes charts, and TV shows. There is no one musical artist that deserves the success more. And for Rector and Rector only will I drop this next line: woo pig sooie.
The album is a testament to years of touring, honing a craft, and the process of writing the most addicting piano pop songs alive. "Paris" is easily my favorite song, and if you've ever been in love you can surely relate to the story of young love. "30,000 Feet" takes a surprising look at the story of a airplane encounter, and "Almost Home" channels Dave Barnes and acts like a part deux to "Hotel Keys", dealing with the struggles of the road, touring, and being away from home. One of my favorite memories of the year was laying on the couch with the girl, just talking about life and listening to this album one summerish fall night. Memories can often shape our favorite albums, and some of my favorite albums/songs all have memories tied to them. I can now add Brand New to that list.
02. Glen Hansard Didn't He Ramble
Release Date: September 18, 2015
LIYL: the movie/play Once, Damien Rice, Alexi Murdoch
The Irish swooner does it again. Another simple-yet-extravagant album. If you've ever seen the movie Once, you've seen and heard of Hansard. Yes, he is the red head hoover sucker fixer guy. Didn't He Ramble delivers a gut punch to every time I revisit it, and it usually starts with "Wedding Ring". The reminder of true love is powerful, especially when the song is written from the perspective of a guy who loves a girl who might be a tad crazy. Or "Stay the Road", a song written while Hansard was living in New York in a woman's refuge (yes.. you read that correct) and how he would say a prayer for these women nightly, and he wrote an ode to that experience and to those women. The album is so delicately put together that it's a great retreat for anyone who needs to disconnect and just be engulfed by the simplicity of a truly crafted songwriter. It's been a staple for me this year, and as hard times happen, it's an album that calms my heart, it's an album I can reflect upon, and it's an album that I just sit and ponder life to. Not many albums offer that type of friendship to you over and over.
01. MuteMath Vitals
Release Date: November 13, 2015
Label: Sony Music
There is no secret about it that MuteMath is my favorite band making music today. Everything they've released I am a fan of, and it's no different with Vitals. One of the things I love about the band is their ability to continually grow album after album, but pull influence from previous albums as well. Always something new and fresh with a toast here and there to the previously traveled sonic highway. While the previous album, Odd Soul, took me some time to get into, Vitals just came so natural from the moment I heard it. From the upbeat "Joy Rides" and the amazing beats (and story) of "Light Up", to that blood rushing feeling when "Stratosphere" starts out. Then you add on the haunting "All I see" and "Remain", the latter being the closest thing i've heard to the bands self-titled album. These songs formulate something special and are intricately woven to make this a stunning listen with a little bit of everything for everyone. Dare I say, with time, this will move into the second slot on my MuteMath favorite discography list? Easily my favorite album of the year, and i've only had a few months to actually spend with it. That should tell you something.
I hope you find something new and something that you can fall in love with on this list. These albums have impacted me over the year, and many continue to be staples in my listening rotation. Check out the EOTY Spotify playlist below to listen to more from (most) of these artists.