by Henry Lipput
I usually just put together a top ten (or so) list of my favorite albums of a given year. But there were other things going on, what with singles and EPs and box sets and books, so I decided to cover them all.
In addition to each album/single/EP/box set described below, I've listed a favorite song. I've also attached a Spotify playlist with these songs. I invite you to give these songs a listen.
I want to close by thanking CoolDadMusic for giving me the opportunity to write about the music that I love. I hope you can find something in these releases that makes you feel as good as I did when I first heard them (and continue to listen to them).
1. The Legal Matters, Conrad (Omnivore Recordings)
The Legal Matters are from Detroit, Michigan, and Conrad is their second album. It was clear from their 2014 self-titled debut that the band's major influences were power pop icons like Big Star, Matthew Sweet, and Teenage Fanclub.
"Anything," the opening track written by Chris Richards, is a stunner as is his gorgeous "Lull And Bye." Andy Reed's "I’m Sorry Love" and "She Called Me To Say" bring more of a big guitar sound and harmonies like early Posies.
The Big Star influence is there especially on the acoustic "The Cool Kid" which can be seen as Reed's take on Big Star's "Thirteen." And, if that song is Conrad's Alex Chilton song, "Pull My String," Keith Klingensmith's contribution to the album, is the Chris Bell song.
"Pull My String" is where everything that makes the Legal Matters such a much-listen for power pop lovers like me can be heard. And Conrad is my favorite album of the year.
Favorite song: "Pull My String"
2. Fallon Cush, Bee In Your Bonnet (Lightly Toasted Records)
Bee In Your Bonnet is the third album by Australia's Fallon Cush and the first in four years.
Earlier albums by Fallon Cush were compared to the sound of Crowded House and it's difficult to come from that part of the world and not be influenced by Neil Finn and company. But the band's current lineup of Smith on vocals and guitar, Glen Hannahon on guitars, Scott Aplin on keyboards, Josh Schuberth on bass and drums, and backing vocalists Suzy Goodwin and Stephanie Grace have a sound that's all their own.
Highlights include the songs "For Too Long" (which has the stuff that torch-song classics are made of), "Useless Friend," "Bee In Your Bonnet," "The Honeycomb" (a heavenly pop hit), and the "Biggest Show" that ends the album with a brief, brilliant guitar solo.
Favorite song: "Useless Friend"
3. Teenage Fanclub, Here (Merge Records)
Here, Teenage Fanclub's 10th album and their first in six years, may very well be one of their best.
The songwriters Gerard Love (bass), Norman Blake (guitar), and Raymond McGinley (guitar) split equally the number of tracks they have on an album with each of them adding ideas, licks, and harmonies to what the others bring to the mix. The band line-up also includes Francis MacDonald on drums and David McGowan on keyboards.
Album highlights include Blake's riff-driven opener "I'm In Love" and his "Connected To Life." Love's "Thin Air" has a classic Fanclub sound with a chorus that has moments of pure musical joy and a guitar solo that rocks. He also contributed the very poppy "It's A Sign." Some of the strongest songs on Here are from McGinley. His "Hold On" has a positive message and music that supports it and "With You" has an equally supportive vibe.
Favorite song: "Hold On"
4. Bill Pritchard, Mother Town Hall (Tapete Records)
"Mont St. Michel," the second song on Mother Town Hall, knocked me out. It's just gorgeous and brings to mind the best work of Burt Bacharach and Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson -- it's that good.
Album highlights include "My First Friendship," about the relationship between a boy and the music he hears on the radio, the Ray Davies-sounding "September Haze" which perfectly captures the feeling of "August people in the summer heat," and "Lily Anne" and "Victorious" which are profiles of characters that could be related to that iconic sad sack Eleanor Rigby.
Mother Town Hall is one of the most beautiful pop records I've heard in a long time.
Favorite song: "Mont St. Michel"
5. Spencer, We Built This Mountain Just To See The Sunrise (Ambulance Recordings)
No album I've heard in the last few years rocks as much as Spencer's We Built This Mountain Just To See The Sunrise. Spencer are based in Zurich, Switzerland, and We Built This Mountain is their fourth album.
There's a real commitment in the band's playing, a take-no-prisoners attitude on songs like the openers "Hidden From The Sun" and "Through Your Head." Other highlights include
"Utopia" with the feel of late-period Roxy Music, "On A Wire" a slow keeper with a lovely, subtle guitar riff, "Saturday Shoes" is terrific pop rock.
My favorite track, "Harry's Still Sad," is one of my favorite songs of the year. This pop masterpiece has a first-rate lead vocal, terrific guitar work (Just wait for the solo at the end), some cheesy 80s organ, hooks galore, and a brilliant middle bit that builds and crests in a way that will give you goose bumps.
Favorite song: "Harry's Still Sad"
6. Allyson Seconds, Little World (Beehive Records)
Allyson Seconds's album, Little World, like her 2009 debut, Bag Of Kittens, was written and produced by Anton Barbeau. Although Barbeau is based in Berlin, he's a Sacramento native and has used his West Coast upbringing to create some sunny California indie-pop for Little World.
Seconds's voice is similar to not only Mary Lou Lord's, but on many tracks she also sings much like Liz Phair on the wonderful whitechocolatespaceegg album as well as the darker side of Sam Phillips. It's a sign of how good a voice Seconds has that she can sound like a child or a woman in these songs.
In addition to the title song, I especially like the lovely "Dust Beneath My Wings" (a mashup of Liz Phair and Lewis Carroll). Seconds flirts on "Eye Kinda" and flirting turns to sex on the Sam Phillips-like "Ono Waltz."
Favorite song: "Dust Beneath My Wings"
7. Cotton Mather, Death Of The Cool (Star Apple Kingdom)
Cotton Mather's Kontiki album is one of the great albums of the 1990s. A pastiche and mashup of Revolver-era Beatles and a bit of Dylan, the album used low-fi recording techniques to approximate a 1960s sound. Robert Harrison, the mastermind behind the band, followed up with remarkable albums under the name of Future Clouds + Radar.
Death of the Cool is the first Cotton Mather album in 15 years. It's also the first of forthcoming Cotton Mather and Future Clouds + Radar releases with songs that have been inspired by the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching.
But don't let that turn you away. Harrison's vocals, with a mix of Lennon and Dylan, still sound terrific and the album rocks. The band still use a lot of instruments and sounds from the Sixties: Keith Moon drumming ("The Book Of Too Late Changes"), mellotron ("The Middle Of Nowhere"), Byrd-sy guitar ("Candy Lilac"), British Invasion ("Never Be It"), and harpsichord ("Child Bride").
Favorite song: "The Book of Too Late Changes"
8. The Monochrome Set, Cosmonaut (Tapete Records)
The songs of The Monochrome Set have been described as "delivering mirth and melancholy, pleasure and panic, delight and dread, wrapped up in tuneful pop songs with curious lyrics." And their new album, their 13th release, certainly lives up to all that. Once again, band leader Bid brings us his trademark songwriting talents and crisp guitar stylings.
Bid has a great imagination and a wonderful sense of humor. The title song is the story of a cashier who has had more than a few red pills that day and imagines that her register is the dashboard of a space ship. With music bordering on surf rock, Bid updates the legend of Sweeny Todd on "Suddenly, Last Autumn." "Squirrel In A Hat" has a distinctly Middle Eastern feel. There's some neat country and western guitar riffs going on in "Kingfisher Blue," and the beautiful "Tigress" is a remembrance of a beloved pet.
Favorite song: "Cosmonaut"
9. Emmitt Rhodes, Rainbow Ends (Omnivore Recordings)
In the 1970s, Emitt Rhodes was America's Paul McCartney. He had the looks, the voice, and he could play all of the instruments on his albums just like Paul did on McCartney. But because of lackluster support from record buyers and record companies, Rhodes, in effect, disappeared from the music business.
Rainbow Ends is the first new Emitt Rhodes album in 43 years. During that time he has been listened to and admired by both fans and musicians. So when the call came out that he was going to be working on a new album, the indie-pop elite, people like Aimee Mann, Jon Brion, Jason Faulkner, and Susanna Hoffs, answered the call.
The first song, "Dog on a Chain," gets right down to business. With Rhodes singing over an acoustic guitar, the song stops for a moment. After that, the band kicks in and it's classic Emitt Rhodes. Welcome back.
Favorite song: "Dog On A Chain"
Sunflower Bean, From the Basement (Fat Possum Records)
Earlier this year, the Brooklyn-based Sunflower Bean released their debut album, Human Ceremony. I liked the vocals of lead singer Julia Cummings, but what really got to me was the terrific guitar playing of Nick Kivlen. For me he's the band's secret weapon the same way that John Strohm was in the Blake Babies. And this band's line-up is similar, with a female lead singer/bass player, an amazing guitarist, and a drummer (not a woman, however, like Freda Love in the Blake Babies, but Jacob Faber).
From The Basement is an EP of covers; and, in many ways, it seems to free and open up the band members, especially Cummings. Her singing is more confident (the band's version of "Harvest Moon" is a gem) and at times she sounds like Margo Timmons of Cowboy Junkies. Kivlen not only continues to grow as a talented guitarist but he also adds a lot to the duet with Cummings on their swell cover of the Spiritualized song "Shine A Light."
Favorite song: "Shine A Light"
Elle Macho, Vovo (Elle Macho)
I have to admit that the draw for me with this band was David Mead. I truly believe he is one of the best (although under-rated) singer-songwriters of the last 15 years or so.
With Elle Macho, Mead is cranking it up; and, in 2013, the band put out “!” In 2016, Mead, along with Butterfly Boucher on bass and Lindsay Jamieson on drums, has released Vovo, a mini-album of terrific songs and performances. On Vovo, Mead and Boucher take turns on lead vocals and the whole thing rocks. With only five songs, you can only ask for more.
Favorite song: "Always On My Mind"
The Good Water, "See Your Light"
The Good Water are Rob Clements on guitar and vocals and Tom Fisher on drums and vocals. They hail from Birmingham, England; and the band's sound has been described as "psych-rock" and "60s blues-pop."
Their new single "See Your Light" is enormously catchy with some great guitar playing, a kick-ass solo with a nice buzzy moment, pounding drums, and a cheesy organ. It's just the type of number you'd hear on AM radio back in the day sandwiched between The Beatles and Jeannie C. Riley.
"See Your Light" is available on most of your favorite download and streaming sites.
Big Star, Complete Third (Omnivore Recordings)
Although this set has been described as a reissue, a lot of these songs have never been collected together in the same place. In fact, this three-disc, 69-song collection -- every recording from Third known to exist -- includes 29 songs that have never been heard before.
Omnivore spent 10 years searching for demos, mixes, and outtakes from Third. Complete Third is a comprehensive listen to an album that was initially dismissed and now revered as a classic. It's obvious that a lot of care has gone into this project. All of the music, demos, mixes, and masters that were recorded more than forty years ago sound terrific.
The first disc contains Alex Chilton's acoustic guitar and voice demos for the songs destined for the album. Disc Two is made up of rough mixes by producer Jim Dickinson and engineer John Fry. And on the third disc you can hear the final masters.
A great example of how things progressed during the recording process is "Big Black Car," which over the course of the three discs is presented as a Chilton acoustic demo, a demo with the band, a Dickinson rough mix, a Fry rough mix, and a final master.
Favorite song: "Thank You Friends"
Kevin Barry, Beatlebone
Beatlebone is the best book I've read this year.
I'm a huge Beatles fan, and the hook for me with this book was John Lennon. Lennon bought an island off the coast of Ireland in 1967. That's the true part of the story. Kevin Barry then spins a tale about Lennon trying to get back (sorry) to the island in 1975. It's a great read.
The thing is, even if Lennon was not part of the story, I would still have enjoyed the book. The writing is amazing and Barry's descriptions of the sky, the wind, and water -- the natural world of the coast of Ireland -- is a joy to read. I don't know if there's such a thing as Irish magical realism (I may have just invented the term) but this book has it in spades.