Alright, now that the Grammy Awards have all been passed out, let’s have a little reprieve, shall we? Each of the 15 albums in this list made a deep impression on me this year. Why 15? Because there were 15 of them. Here they are in alphabetical order.
You can follow along with some of my favorite tracks from these records on Apple Music.
Altarage — The Approaching Roar
This anonymous three-piece band from Spain blew me away early on in the year. The record kicks off with a whimsical, overdriven bass intro before completely erupting into a cacophony of raging noise. The gain in the production is hot, which causes the drums and guitars to have a pumping feel that is common when overdriving guitars a little too far. It very much emphasizes heaviness of this surreal, atmospheric record. The Approaching Roar really lives up to its title.
Charley Crocket — The Valley
Charley Crockett is a living archive of obscure America and such a prolific songwriter, it’s hard to tell what’s old, new, or borrowed (it’s all blue, though). The Valley is a timeless collection of tunes that showcase his talent for finding new classics (Vincent Neil Emerson’s 7 Come 11), putting a fresh spin on the traditional, and penning his own classics.
Dylan Earl — Squirrel in the Garden
The Arkansas master of slow-burn ballads is back. Blurring the line of tongue in cheek, and dead-pan sorrow, Squirrel in the Garden tugs at your heart strings and keeps you guessing with quirky changes. There is a wholesome honesty to Dylan Earl’s music that almost seems too good to be true. I don’t believe that it is, though.
Infant Annihilator — The Battle of Yaldabaoth
This deathcore trio from Yorkshire are essentially the Tenacious D of extreme metal. Everything about Infant Annihilator is over-the-top, blatantly silly, and exquisitely executed. The Battle of Yaldabaoth is hyper offensive by design. The lyrics are as inhumane as the blast beats are inhuman (literally?). There is so much going on here, but you can’t help but notice the drums. Yes, there is quantization, but by all accounts, drummer Aaron Kitcher can pull this stuff off.
Joshua Ray Walker — Wish You Were Here
This one snuck in under my radar, and accidentally fell off my map for a while (Apple Music’s recently added isn’t as useful to those of us who add a lot of albums to our libraries). In the tradition of Texas troubadours (in the literal sense), Joshua Ray Walker is another talented songwriter among the flood of geniuses coming out of the state. Wish You Were Here has some good shit-kickers, but the ballads are touching and intelligent. I need to talk Kristyn into putting “Canyon” on her Sunday’s Sad Singer Songwriter Showcase playlist.
Kyle Craft — Showboat Honey
Kristyn and I happened to catch a solo acoustic Kyle Craft set at a dive bar/honky tonk in Chico opening for Paul Cauthen last year. We were instantly smitten by his glammed-out Americana. His Headwig/Aaron Lee Tasjan crossover vibe was powerful, and we were only more blown away by the wall of sound version on his album when we spun it relentlessly the next day.
Orville Peck — Pony
Speaking of glammed out Americana, I’m not all that surprised that this one is blowing the fuck up right now (although it’s practically a year old). You all know my soft spot for Canadian songwriters, so this shouldn’t be too much of a shock. What is a bit surprising, though, is that Pony is getting such acclaim as a county album. I find it to have way more in common with the Smiths or even The Thompson Twins, myself. It easily holds up to anything either of them have put out, too. The vibe of this record is nostalgic, but at the same time pushes the genre into cutting-edge territory.
Paul Cauthen — Room 41
Paul Cauthen is challenging for me. My Gospel was a hard sell on me back in 2016, but when I came around to it, I was hooked hard. Room 41 was very much the same. It took me some weeks to muscle past my cheese ball reflex and swallow the disco. Cauthen further pushes the boundary of country music on this record. His voice and delivery is renowned for its reminiscence to Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, but this is only scratching the surface. His songwriting, impeccable taste, and knack for finding interesting collaborators put him in a whole other class.
Pedro the Lion — Phoenix
Nostalgia is a powerful drug. David Bazan’s songwriting always had a deeply nostalgic appeal for me. Now that it’s been nearly 20 years since his Pedro the Lion heyday, the nostalgia runs a bit deeper. The slow delivery, the extreme dynamics, the way the bass lines stitch the melodies together… it’s like he never stopped. I try really hard to leave the past in the past when it comes to music, but it’s not every day someone writes a concept album about your childhood. My bike was chrome, though.
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys — Toil, Tears & Trouble
The one artist on my list that was actually nominated for a Grammy this year! As usual, though, the Grammies were wrong. At least they lost to Michael Cleveland who plays fiddle for them sometimes. Toil, Tears & Trouble is actually the best bluegrass album of the year. Traditional bluegrass is kind of a rarity these days, and when you factor in the songwriting, tone and song-focused performances on this record, you realize just what a rare gem this is.
Thy Art Is Murder — Human Target
Switching gears; Human Target is one of those consolation records you hoped for when the shoe dropped in 2016 that solidified the hold of fascist white nationalism in all corners of the globe. Human Target is not so much a critique of everything that is wrong with the current state of human society, but a relentless condemnation in the most direct and angry way possible. Listening to this makes me feel better.
Tim Bluhm — Sorta Surviving
If there is one artist you could call the father of Northern California country music, it is Tim Bluhm. Blah, blah, blah Mother Hips, blah, blah, blah guitar solos, blah, blah, blah Merle Haggard… I know! Just go back through the 90s and listen to a few solo records. There is no one I know of who is more lyrically centered in the heartland of my California. His slow, California drawl, his homages to our geography, his uncanny way of pulling a story out of your childhood—Sorta Surviving, like so many of his earlier recordings, has all of these things in spades.
Ty Segall & Freedom Band — Deforming Lobes
I’m not one to be all that into live albums, but there was just something about the free-form, raw garage punk, jam band vibe of this record that really resonated with me. I came to find out later that that something was Steve Albini. I swear my music libido is a divining rod for that guy. Deforming Lobes rocks like Mudhoney, jams like Ween, and just melts your face off.
Venom Prison — Samsara
Samsara is a brutal, post-apocalyptic, feminist extreme fest. It’s technical, but not sterile. The performances are loose and enhance the rage and bleakness of the overarching themes. One isn’t left to wallow in brooding interludes for very long. There are plenty of breakdowns, blast beats, and some classic hard core punk peppered throughout. And “Uterine Industrialization” is just the best song title of all time.
Vincent Neil Emerson — Fried Chicken & Evil Women
Kristyn and I caught Vincent Neil Emerson opening up for Colter Wall early in the year. His smooth delivery and clever songwriting smack you in the face (in the best way possible) right away. I remember his tune “7 Come 11” standing out to me, and was blown away later hearing Charley Crocket have a crack at it. This guy keeps good company, and for good reason. He is a treasure, and Fried Chicken & Evil Women perfectly represents his live performances.
And how about that for an overdue New Music Tuesday?