Whether you’re on the lookout for music to lift your spirits on into the New Year, or making your holiday gift list, a few of us have been poring over the works of 2016’s finest music-makers to help make things a bit easier.
To help inspire you, here’s our take on this year’s musical excellence.
KALEO “A / B”
For the uninitiated, Iceland’s Kaleo – now making their home base in Austin, Texas – are a sumptuous folk-rock-blues band, and one of the year’s best new acts. Their splendid “A / B” debut was one not to miss, and their tour to promote the new album included a sold-out show at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom.
Spawning hit singles “Way Down We Go” and “All the Pretty Girls,” “A / B” was produced and recorded with Jacquire King (James Bay, Kings of Leon, Of Monsters and Men). Kaleo has the ability to explore different genres with equal finesse; “A / B” includes raucous blues stomper “No Good,” outrageous slide on “Can’t Go On Without You” and the beautifully haunting “Vor í Vaglaskógi,” sung in their native Icelandic.
An acoustic intro, terrific lead vocals (JJ Julius Son) and a passionate closing crescendo make “Save Yourself” yet another smashing arrangement. On Atlantic Records.
ARC IRIS “Moon Saloon”
Under-the-radar Arc Iris delivered to the music scene their delightful Indie-rock “Moon Saloon.” The album’s innovative musical nuance boasts complex orchestral pop arrangements with a cinematic quality.
Derived from the band’s influences – combining traditional elements with percussive structures and dense, beguiling harmonies – the album excelled in beat-heavy melodies and textural, groove-riding rhythms.
Through it all, lead singer Jocie Adams’ vocals are smooth as glass.
Highly recommended to those of us who prefer rich, colorful music that’s satiated with surprise. Our favorite track? “Paint With the Sun.”
AMOS LEE “Spirit”
Like a fine wine, Amos Lee just keeps getting better with time. This year his sophisticated R&B-flavored “Spirit” served up musical ambrosia in spades. A booming brass section and heartfelt piano make simmering opening track “New Love” a winner, while pop-flavored touches on “Lost Child” and his Motown-like “Running Out of Time” surprise and satisfy big-time.
Lee solidly returns to his folk roots on acoustic and poignant “Wait Up for Me” – an instant classic – and his ace musicians are tight as ever on tracks like “One Lonely Night” and “Highways and Clouds.”
Hit single “Vaporize” is one not to miss. And as for his vocals?
He couldn’t be sounding better.
NARROW PLAINS “Narrow Plains”
Is one of America’s favorite new rock bands from England?
Narrow Plains’ first full studio album was an exemplary effort bestowing uplifting, artfully crafted acoustic rock. Winners of the U.S.A.-based “Bands4Good” competition, the London band scored a fortuitous recording retreat in North Carolina with legendary engineer John Davenport (Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones).
We think you’ll love buoyant “There She Goes” “Running to Your Door,” and the tender sentiment that makes “Ghost” a real standout. Both “Restless Mind” and “I Should’ve Known” are on the station’s playlist.
RAY LAMONTAGNE “Ouroboros”
Two years after releasing superlative “Supernova,” the reclusive and talented Ray Lamontagne returned with “Ouroboros.”
From its brooding, etherial opening track “Homecoming” to closing notes of “Part Two (Wouldn’t It Make A Lovely Photograph),” the album was a stunner. Produced by and featuring My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, this was Lamontagne’s sixth studio release. Not an album you’ll likely hear much on commercial radio, most tracks are lush, meditative journeys. Others, like “The Changing Man,” are massive blues rockers that deliver.
Look especially for the beautiful dreamlike “In My Own Way” and terrific blues-rock hit single “Hey, No Pressure.”
BAND OF HORSES “Why Are You O.K.?”
The newest release from these talented southern Indie rockers offers an exceptional collection of diverse, melodic tracks. At the heart of the album is frontman Ben Bridwell’s songwriting believability and keen music instincts; the band’s atmospheric harmonies are also delightful.
Highlights include high-spirited “Casual Party,” reflective “Hag,” boisterous “Throw My Mess” and pensive “Lying Under Oak.” PRP’s favorites? “Found it in a Drawer” and “Country Teen,” both on our playlist.
Is a grammy nomination in store? We’ll be rooting for them.
JAKE BUGG “On My One”
Four years after emerging onto rock’s music scene on both sides of the Atlantic, Alt-rock artist Jake Bugg returned with “On My One.” British slang for “on my own,” the title track succeeded via the characteristics that make Bugg a great performer: memorable lyrics amidst a stripped-down acoustic arrangement deftly showcasing his ardent, clear vocals.
Selections were as diverse as they come and included the brooding “The Love We’re Hoping For,” sentimental “All That” and catchy rockabilly-style “Put Out the Fire.”
Though critics weren’t even remotely united on this year’s album it’s worth remembering that at the ripe old age of 22, Bugg remains a gifted musician with an independent streak.
BLIND PILOT “And Then Like Lions”
Blind Pilot’s indie-folk-pop “And Then Like Lions” won us over with ear-pleasing sounds that comfort and inspire. The third studio release from the Portland-based group boasted ten artful tracks surely netting the band new fans.
Central to the album’s sound and appeal are lead singer Israel Nebeker’s captivating vocals, harmonious layered choruses and tasteful acoustic and percussive touches. Listen for the outstanding, lyrically engaging “Packed Powder” and the plaintive “Which Side I’m On.” Also noteworthy: the beautifully lush “Umpqua Rushing” and pensive “Joik #3,” a lovely ode to Nebecker’s father who passed over two years ago.
BON IVER “22, A Million”
“Where you gonna look for confirmation? / An’ if it’s ever gonna happen / So as I’m standing at the station / It might be over soon.” So begins opening track “Over Soon” from Bon Iver’s captivating “22, A Million.”
Some tracks impart an almost stream-of-consciousness vibe, but you’ll be hard-pressed to get this one off repeat. Sparse, gorgeous, often melancholy arrangements using processed vocals and synths are the winning formula for frontman Justin Vernon’s latest. And Sean Carey’s evocative drums and percussion within the album’s often minimalist electronics are exceptional.
A great companion album for moving forward through uncertain times.
REBELUTION “Falling Into Place”
This beautifully produced Reggae-rock album may be just what you need to help recover from your post-election blues.
Rebelution’s popularity is largely credited to lead singer Eric Rachmany’s vocals and musical finesse. According to the band’s website, songs were at least partly inspired by Rachmany’s “inspirational trip to Jamaica…where he did some of the writing.”
A band loved round-the-world, Rebelution are based in Isla Vista, California. Standout tracks include the colossal “Know It All” and gently powerful “Breakdown.”