My Favorite Albums of 2016

Now that Columbia Free Times has published its annual ‘best albums not from South Carolina’ list that I contributed to, here

I can post my own full list below, which shows it was a pretty good, diverse year for music.

1. Drive-By Truckers, American Band: The album that captures how I feel about this year better than anything else.

2. David Bowie, Blackstar: Tragic start to the year with Bowie’s death, but this parting statement is all the more powerful for his knowing absence.

3. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker: Tragic end to the year with Cohen’s passing, but his dedication to the word and the song was strong all the way to the finish.

4. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service: Phife Dawg may be gone, but he lives on in the tracks here, and the Tribe manages to come back and say goodbye in the same instant with class, style, and precisely drawn vibes that nail the current state of things.

5. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth: Simpson doesn’t need today’s country music, but today’s country music sorely needs Simpson.

6. Volbeat, Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie: Groove metal with hammerblow intensity and a fun-loving streak that’s sadly absent from the music of their peers.

7. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book: Kanye gets more props but my favorite rapper right now is probably this guy, who wraps funk and gospel into one big crazy mess like a kid with an actual coloring book who refuses to draw inside the lines.

8. Bill Mallonee & the Big Sky Ramblers, Slow Trauma; Mule: America’s greatest living songwriter, he puts out albums at such a clip it’s hard to keep up. These two from 2016 are both top notch representations of the world-weary, faith-infused point of view he has perfected over the years.

9. Corinne Bailey Rae, The Heart Speaks in Whispers: Beyonce may be pushing more boundaries in more directions, but for late night jazzy R&B vibes, this lady put out the smoothest jams of the year.

10. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad: I think I watched this album more than I listened, as the recordings done in various train stations were all filmed and posted online. Two of my favorite songwriters playing songs about trains and traveling, it’s a musical and historical journey all in one.

My Favorite South Carolina Music of 2016

Today’s Columbia Free Times edition included the compiled Top SC Albums list for 2016, for which I contributed my own picks and commentary. You can find the official Free Times list here, but I’m posting my own full Top Ten below.

1. Shovels & Rope, Little Seeds
Carrie Ann Hearst and Michael Trent have become the darlings, if not the flag-bearers, for the Americana scene over the last few years. This year’s edition happened in the midst of births (Their own new baby) and deaths (the tragic loss of fellow Charleston musician Eric Brantley), both extremes of life are represented in these songs that extend the duo’s impressive creative run through folk, rock, and more.

2. Gruzer, Let It Burn
Melodic and accessible without pulling any punches, the veterans in Gruzer make a statement with this EP that solidifies their place in the local heavy music scene. Combining near-thrash intensity with a core tunefulness that can appeal even to the non-metalhead crowd, tracks such as “Accessory” (which the band just augmented with a professionally shot video released this month) blast forth with an authority borne of experience.

3. Cole Connor, SODA
A love letter to his city, his scene, and the struggles of pursuing a hip-hop dream despite the haters and naysayers, SODA finds young rapper Cole Connor humble yet forceful, thoughtful but defiant, and in command of his lyricism like never before. His rapid-fire delivery slows down here and there but the tracks are jam packed with cameos from his New Success Culture crew, Fat Rat Da Czar, strings and more.

4. Barnwell, Motel Art
Tyler Gordon and company took the rootsy Americana rock tendencies apparent on their earlier material and polished them to great effect on this stellar set of shimmering songs that deliver on the promise of hook-laden guitar slinging pop-rock practitioners everywhere.

5. Prettier Than Matt, Better Left Said
Likeable is a mostly meaningless word that doesn’t get thrown around much in critical descriptions of most musical groups, but in the case of Jessica Skinner and Jeff Pitts, the duo known as Prettier Than Matt, it’s the first one that comes to mind because it actually fits them perfectly. Their latest finds the pair taking advantage of the best production and songs they’ve had to date, with results that reflect their sunny folk-pop sensibility in a definitely likeable way.

6. Alarm Drum, Fragments Of…
The latest from this young Columbia band sounds like it could have been recorded twenty years before they were born, but the gauzy retro feel only adds to the appeal of the tunes–alternately somnabulent shoegaze dreaminess and openly anachronistic guitar pop, sometimes within the same songs.

7. Sandcastles., Die Alone
Kari Lebby’s synth-pop project delivered a glorious mess of an album with more ideas than space to house them, like getting into multiple conversations at a house party and waking up the next day knowing you had fun but with no idea exactly what happened.

8. Carolina Chupacabra, Dying to Live
An intense slab of swamp metal sludge rock from a band that’s been kicking around for a while but never quite hit the right combination of power and precision that’s on display here. Even without knowing some of the back story behind Wade Parrott’s songwriting, the impact is at gut-punch level.

9. Dear Blanca, To Tell a Half-Truth
There’s a depth and diversity to the latest EP from Dear Blanca that belies its brief tenure; Dylan Dickerson’s voice may have to grow on new arrivals to the party, but the post-blues, scratchy indie rock formalism of his melodies is enough to hook all but the most jaded listener.

10. Mel Washington, Black Excellence Vol 2
The second set of Washington’s series of covers by influential black artists includes both new and old classics, from Drake’s “Hotline Bling” to Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” and he puts his own arrangements and singular voice to work on recasting them to great effect. This set leans more to the newer side with Kanye West and Valerie June, making the revamped versions even more stunning.

Grace Joyner gets “Real”


grace joyner

Charleston indie-pop chanteuse Grace Joyner has been quiet since her 2014 EP Young Fools, but that’s about to change with the May 20th release date pending for her first full length album, Maybe Sometimes in C.

Joyner’s style has always been a bit standoffish, indifferent sounding, almost accidental; the first song released from the new album, “Real”, doesn’t buck that trend but it has a less subtle feel. Joyner will never be a hooky pop princess, but that’s a good thing. Here, she takes the psychedelic wanderings of Nicole Atkins and propels them with a Lorde-esque lyrical attitude: “Take a page out of the novel you’ve been writing in your head, and do it instead…”

My Favorite South Carolina Albums of 2015

Just as we’re tasked to do an ‘overall’ list, the local/regional focus of the Columbia Free Times means there’s also a ‘local’ one, which was published in the paper recently here. As before, my own list differed, which only goes to show there is way more good music being made around these parts than will fit in any old list. Here’s mine, with a few extras:

1. ColorBlind, ColorBlind

Justin Smith and Fat Rat Da Czar may not have set out to make a political statement with this collaborative effort, but in the times we’re in, this album qualifies. In a truly colorblind world this would just be a great buddy project with beats, lines, hooks, and unconditional friendship, what more could you ask for?

2. She Returns From War, Oh What A Love

Maybe it is the production from legend Don Dixon that ensconces the proceedings in a sympathetic yet understated acoustic elegance; maybe it is the songs themselves that are singular slices of how to be human. The answer is in both the voice and songwriting talent of Hunter Park, central figure in this shifting “group”.

3. Shovels & Rope, Busted Jukebox Volume 1

More than just a lark or filler between albums, this covers collection from Charleston’s husband and wife duo includes contributions from musical friends such as Shakey Graves, J. Roddy Walston, and Butch Walker. No irony or novelty here, just a series of revelatory romps through songs they obviously love from Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Rodney Crowell, and more.

4. The High Divers, Riverlust

Some albums sneak up on you, others just hit you right from the start; this is one of the latter–a tuneful, hummable joy that’s part Dire Straits, part Avett Brothers and all heart, soul, and rambling, shambling melody.

5. A Fragile Tomorrow, Make Me Over (MPress)

As trashy, over the top and in-your-face decadent as their last album was taut, restrained, and politely melodic, the boys in A Fragile Tomorrow have grown into a rock ‘n’ roll machine of glam-tastic proportions.

6. Atlas Road Crew, Halfway to Hopkins

This debut full-length with major league production values posits the gritty Charleston-based rockers as southern, but not southern rock; classic, but not classic rock; and ready for their star to rise—starting with a two month tour of Europe in 2016, the band seems well on their way.

7. Brian Robert, 1117 Magnolia

The Co. frontman now under his own name; this one revolves around the titular ode to a Charleston neighborhood bar and live music destination and retains a homespun charm throughout.

8. Debbie and the Skanks, Live and Buck Wild

Kicking out the jams has never been more fun than when radiant, rocking frontwoman Deborah Adedokun hooked up with the greasy grunts in The Skanks, and this live set is loud, boisterous, 100 proof.

9. The Prairie Willows, White Lies

Three ladies with brassy, classy voices singing three-part harmonies on original songs in the folk and old-time tradition; so well done you’d swear a tune like “Whiskey” was a remake of a ’20’s speakeasy standard.

10. Burnt Books, Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire

Stretching the boundaries of heavy music, hardcore, progressive metal, or whatever it is you call what Burnt Books does, this set may be the band’s best expression yet of their scorched earth approach to making music.  They’re still awesomer live, here’s a 20 minute set from Texas to prove it:

11. Brave Baby, Electric Friends

Brave Baby drummer Ryan Zimmerman has produced just about every other Charleston band in his practice space studio over the past few years; maybe it’s this eclectic resume that helps his main gig avoid sounding quite like anything else out there while maintaining a pleasant, shimmering perfection. If the Zombies were resurrected as an 00’s indie band, they’d sound like Brave Baby.

12. Mel Washington, Black Excellence

Covers? Sure, but singer and guitarist Mel Washington makes thematic sense with this surprisingly wide-ranging group of tunes from influential African-American artists including Beyonce and Sam Cooke, all sung with his subtle, soulful tonality. Missing a favorite song or artist of yours? There’s a second volume coming in 2016.

13. Heyrocco, Teenage Movie Soundtrack

This Charleston band spent much of its recent history in Nashville and England, but the music they make is still unabashedly 90’s American vintage alt-rock, mashing up lost alt-hit acts like Our Lady Peace and The Toadies with a healthy respect for the lads from the other side of the pond.

14. Angela Easterling, Common Law Wife

This upstate singer-songwriter and alt-country sweetheart is quietly building an impressive catalog of tunes with musical and life partner Brandon Turner, whose tasty lead guitar lifts these songs above the rest of the twangy crowd.

15. Villanova, Thread of Life

Back to their original name after a disappointing major label run as Weaving the Fate, Brian Conner and company got back to the basics of song, melody, and power pop with this crisply produced return to form.

And a bonus, my favorite new local song not on an album this past year: