My Favorite Albums of 2016

I’m not sure what happened to 2016. In the annals of bad years, 2016 will go down in infamy. We lost Prince and Bowie. We lost Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe. Gene Wilder and Alan Rickman. Harper Lee and Pat Conroy. Garry Shandling and Garry Marshall. And then we elected Donald J. Trump to the most powerful job in the world. 2016 pretty much sucked (and it’s not quite over yet).

So why should I be surprised that for the first time in decades of compiling my favorite albums of the year I struggled to find 10 albums to make the list? For whatever reason, most of my favorite artists didn’t release new albums this year. And while we did get one magical farewell album from one of the greatest of all time, this year’s lot (for me anyway) would make Ziggy Stardust catch the first rocket back to from wherever he came.

That said, all is not lost. I’m pleased to report I did manage to find 10 albums that I liked enough to make a list this year. I’m tempted not to put them in any order, but like they say, no guts no glory. So here goes:

10. Sturgill Simpson —  A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Has hell frozen over? Is that, dear lord, a country album in a Len Gutman top 10 list? I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea who Sturgill Simpson was until his incredible cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom started making the rounds on the Interwebs. The song gives me goosebumps every time I hear it and I knew I had to listen to the whole album when it came out. Admittedly, Simpson is not your typical twangy pop country crap — he is described as alt country or outlaw country. Whatever you call it, the man has chops and can write a song.  A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a really soulful album that was inspired by his young son. Frankly, any album that features the Dap Kings is alright in my book.

9. Band of Horses — Why are you OK? It’s been six years since Infinite Arms made my top 10 list and truthfully I haven’t listened to much BOH since then. Something made me listen to this year’s Why are you OK? and I’m really happy I did. This Seattle band known for its Americana sound is definitely worth exploring, like this Casual Party.

8. Kaiser Chiefs — Stay Together. I didn’t know much about Leeds, UK band Kaiser Chiefs until I listened to Stay Together and I have to say they fall right in my sweet spot. I really love 80s inspired bands like Franz Ferdinand, Phoenix and The Kooks and Kaiser Chiefs fits the mold. I am definitely going back to listen to some of their older records to hear what I’ve been missing. In the meantime, check out Parachute from Stay Together.

7. Fitz and the Tantrums —Fitz and the Tantrums. The self-titled third album from Fitz and the Tantrums is another great dance album filled with that unmistakable Fitz sound. I make no apologies for loving these guys and while I certainly didn’t like this album as much as the band’s first two I did enjoy it. I was also fortunate to see them live this year for the fourth time in the past few years and you’re simply not going to find a more enjoyable live concert experience. Bring your dancing shoes and don’t forget to clap your hands to the beat.

6. Red Hot Chili Peppers — The Getaway. The Chili Peppers’ first album came out in 1984, the year I graduated from high school. I have to admit that over the years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with them. I didn’t like them early on, although here and there a song caught my attention. It wasn’t until 2002’s By The Way that I was really hooked, and I played that album over and over for years. By the time Stadium Arcadium came out in 2006; however, I’d cooled on them and that’s the way it stayed until the first time I heard Dark Necessities this summer. Oh man, that song stuck in my ear and when the full album was released I was a Chili Peppers fan again! Credit goes to Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse), who produced The Getaway, and put his unmistakable stamp on it. Damn, that guy knows how to make an album.

5. Bob Mould — Patch the Sky. You’ve got to appreciate a guy who finds his sound early on and sticks with it. When you hear Bob Mould there’s no mistaking it. Whether you first found him back in the 80s with Hüsker Dü or in the 90s with Sugar, I venture to guess that if you’re a Mould fan you like it all — as I do. So it really wasn’t a huge surprise when Patch the Sky came out in March and it was vintage Mould. If you are a fan and haven’t heard it yet I urge you to give it a listen and start with Voices in my Head. If you’re not a fan, you probably weren’t alive in the 80s!

4. The Temper Trap — Thick as Thieves. If you listened to music in 2009 you undoubtedly heard The Temper Trap’s huge hit Sweet Disposition, which went Gold in the U.S. and Platinum in the U.K. and the band’s home of Australia. But like me, you may have thought they were a one-hit wonder. Yes, they’ve been going strong down under since then, but Thick as Thieves should really put them back on the map around the world. The Temper Trap has a great sound that is one part modern and another part 80s throwback. I’ve listened to this record a lot since it came out this summer and it is solid all the way through, including this great track Fall Together.

3. Dawes — We’re All Gonna Die. Rarely does a band place back-to-back records on my favorite albums list, but this year following on the heels of 2015’s wonderful All Your Favorite Bands comes We’re All Gonna Die. I just love their sound, which has been described as having a Laurel Canyon vibe. Dawes is the kind of band that’s perfect for listening to while sitting on your patio on a warm day with a cold beer. Like I said last year, Dawes is an unabashed throwback to the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Brown. Kick back and just Roll with the Punches.

2. Kings of Leon — Walls. I couldn’t get enough of KoL during the Only by the Night and Come Around Sundown years, but I cooled on the Followill boys in 2013 when Mechanical Bull came out. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and in truth they were pretty overexposed there for a while. So my expectations were low when Walls came out this autumn, and maybe that’s what did it for me. Walls is KoL’s best album since 2008’s Only by the Night and since it just came out a few week’s ago I expect it will get even more ingrained in my head as time goes on. All due respect to the top album on my list this year (it deserves all the accolades it gets), Walls is really my favorite record of 2016. Take a listen to Waste a Moment and tell me I’m not right!

1. David Bowie — Blackstar. What can you say about Blackstar that hasn’t already been written? For Bowie fans it was a surprise farewell album that upon his death just a few days after its release left us stunned and in awe of the man’s genius. Who else but Bowie could have written an album about his own impending death with such grace and style. Blackstar is dark and moody, but the message is clear — his time was up. I challenge anyone not to get chills watching the video for Lazarus. Ironically, I had been listening to a lot of Bowie in the months prior to his death and I was critical of myself for not having dived deeper into the man’s discography earlier in my life. That changed in the weeks following his death as I listened to Bowie nonstop and will continue to do so until my own star is extinguished. I suspect Blackstar will take home plenty of Grammy Awards and will go down in history as the best swan song ever written. I’m not going to argue it wasn’t the best album of an otherwise mediocre year.

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Favorite Albums of 2015

I think this year was a pretty decent year for music, despite the fact that the majority of my favorite artists did not release new albums. That simply meant I looked outside my sweet spot for new music and for someone my age that’s a good thing. No point in letting yourself get stale. A lot of people my age say there’s no good music out there anymore, but I couldn’t disagree more. You just have to look, or rather listen. I suppose I could play the same artists over and over and be happy, but for me the hunt is as fun as the catch. There’s a new documentary film out this year about the history of Tower Records called All Things Must Pass. And while I have not seen it yet, the trailer reminded me of how important Tower Records was to me in my youth. I literally considered hanging out at Tower Records a night out, flipping through the rows of LPs, talking with pierced and tatted employees about the latest records, copping a squat by the magazine rack looking through copies of NME and Rolling Stone. When I worked at a record store in college I expanded my musical tastes exponentially because I was able to be exposed to so much new music.

These days, SiriusXM has become my Tower Records. I can listen to my favorites from the 80s on First Wave, the 90s on Lithium, or rock on Classic Vinyl. But more often than not I tune into The Spectrum, and in addition to my favorites I hear new music by bands I’ve never heard of…and some of them stick. And some of them become my new favorites, like The National, Phoenix, Mumford and Sons and Arcade Fire. Even better, by subscribing to a streaming music service like Google Play I can listen to entire albums by new bands to go beyond the hit tracks and see if there’s more there. Or I can read about an artist on the web and give them a listen without making a commitment. Some of them turn out to be duds, but more than a few end up on my year-end favorites list. Which brings me back to my favorite albums of 2015, which consists of a nice mix of established artists and newer artists.

First, a few honorable mentions. I really liked the new Blur record The Magic Whip, especially on the heels of Damon Albarn’s amazing solo album from last year, Everyday Robots.  25 by Adele is exactly what we expected, and although for me it’s nowhere near as good as 19 and 21, it’s still Adele and it’s still wonderful. Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes is bluesy goodness. Squeeze delivered a nice little reminder of why Difford and Tilbrook will always be among the best songwriters in rock and roll history with their first new album in decades — Cradle to the Grave. And speaking of history, one of the biggest surprises of the year for me was Pete Townshend’s reinterpretation of Quadrophenia with the Royal Philharmonic — seriously, give this a listen. Kintsugi by Death Cab For Cutie is a solid (though not great) album by one of my favorite bands. Finally, while it won’t be released until Dec. 18, early indications are that I’m really going to like Cage the Elephant’s Tell Me I’m Pretty (which was produced by Dan Auerbach). And now, here are my 10 favorite albums of 2015:

10. Beneath the Skin by Of Monsters and Men —  This follow-up to the Icelandic band’s first album, 2012’s My Head is an Animal, is really great. It’s quite a bit more mellow than their debut, which was one of my favorite albums of 2012. While it’s probably a disappointment sales-wise following the huge success of My Head is an Animal (which sold more than two million copies), it nevertheless delivers the same lovely and moving sound of Nanna Hilmarsdóttir’s voice.

9. Return to the Moon by El Vy — What a happy surprise  it was when I heard Return to the Moon on the radio the first time and couldn’t believe The National had a new album out that I didn’t know about. Well, turns out it was indeed The National’s Matt Berninger on lead vocals but it was a side project not a new album by one of my favorite bands. I don’t know what it is these days, but musical collaboration seems to be on the rise. I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with Brent Knopf before hearing this album, but I’m sure glad he and Matt decided to do an album together.

8. California Nights by Best Coast — Lead singer Bethany Cosentino cited Gwen Stefani, Sugar Ray and the Go Go’s as influences for California Nights and the result is pure California pop goodness. I don’t hear much No Doubt in the album, but there’s most definitely a Go Go’s vibe and frankly a Beach Boys vibe. This is Best Coast’s third studio album and the second to make my year-end list. They are the perfect example of a band I never would have found without doing some work — and I’m so glad I did.

7. A Head Full of Dreams by Coldplay — I’m an unapologetic fan of all things Coldplay but even I have to admit last year’s Ghost Stories album was a disappointment. And I was as surprised as everyone else when Coldplay announced a new album this fall, and I was skeptical, but after just a few listens I really like it. It’s upbeat with a bit of a dance edge and has 11 really solid songs on it, especially the disco-infused title track. Welcome back Chris and friends.

6. All Your Favorite Bands by Dawes — This band from Los Angeles tend to get put in the “folk rock” category but I think they are in a category of their own I like to call “California Cool.” I probably did not coin that genre, but it fits. Think 1970s California soft rock — Jackson Browne and the Eagles. This is perfect music for cruising up the coast in a convertible, which is exactly what I was doing when I discovered Dawes a few years ago. I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever.

5. Love Stuff by Elle King — Quite the debut album from 26-year-old Tanner Elle Schneider, aka Elle King. With a huge voice and a bad-ass attitude to go along with it, King is the anti-Taylor Swift and wants you to know it. She may not be America’s Sweetheart, but she’ll be around for a long time if she keeps writing songs like Ex’s and Oh’s. I can envision dad Rob Schneider sitting up in the balcony yelling “you can do it.”

4. Yours, Dreamily by The Arcs — Released on Sept. 4 (my son’s birthday), this album featuring the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach did not disappoint. Yes, it sounds like the Keys, but if you’ve read my favorite albums lists over the past decade you already know how much I love the Black Keys. This solo project has a nice blues/soul feel that is a little less raw than the Keys, and while “Outta My Mind” could have easily been a hit for the Keys, my favorite tracks are deeper on the album, especially Put a Flower in Your Pocket. Recorded at the Sound Factory in LA, this album got a lot of plays on my stereo this fall.

3. Positive Songs for Negative People by Frank Turner — In 2013 I kept hearing this song on XM called Recovery by Frank Turner and it really grew on me. I had never heard of Turner but I listened to the whole album and really liked it. This year Turner released his sixth album and I really love it. Turner’s music is acoustic post-punk folk with a hard edge and great lyrics. I’m sure fans of his early work think he is too mellow these days, but there’s nothing wrong with being more accessible.

2. Wilder Mind by Mumford & Sons — Babel was my favorite album of 2012 and it is sure to land high on the list of my favorite records of the decade, so imagine how excited I was when the band announced it would release its third album in 2015 but that it would be more modern and would not include the banjo. What! The Mumfords without a banjo? Sacrilege! Guess what? Wilder Minds is tremendous and I think Believe is probably my favorite Mumford & Sons song ever. So they evolved. What’s wrong with that? I absolutely love Wilder Mind and listen to it all the time, and almost six months later I still turn the volume up when Believe or The Wolf comes on the radio.

1. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World by The Decemberists — 2015 began with this gift from the Decemberists and the album never stopped delivering. Frankly, it wasn’t even close this year — this album is head and shoulders above the rest for me. I was fortunate as well to see them live early this year and they were spectacular.  Make You Better was easily my favorite song of the year, and the lesser known and hauntingly beautiful Lake Song stands out as well. The Decemberists have firmly planted themselves near the top of my list of favorite bands and I look forward to many years of new music from Colin and the band.

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Len’s Top Albums of 2013

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As we come to the end of another year it’s time once again for a totally biased list of my favorite albums of the year. A few things of note this year: One, it appears disco is making a comeback. I think this is actually pretty cool, though I admit I did get awful tired of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” this summer. Two, Pearl Jam has easily become the 90s band with the most staying power, continually making very solid rock and roll albums (kiss my ass Nirvana). And three, the “Mumford” sound continued to drive good music in 2013 with great songs and albums by bands like The Lumineers, Dawes, The Avett Brothers and The Head and the Heart. All that said, here are the ten albums that I enjoyed the most this year, and if you like you can watch the videos for my favorite song from each album on a YouTube playlist I created.

  • Bad Blood — Bastille
    The debut album from this London-based band knocks it out of the park. Bastille is part of a new wave of bands that bring modern sounds together with a touch of the alternative 80s, and for my money these guys are the best of the bunch. I first saw them this summer on TV performing live at the Isle of Wight Festival and the crowd went nuts when they came out…it sort of reminded me in a small way of when U2 performed at Live Aid. I liked what I heard that day and the album is solid top to bottom. Bastille reminds me of a couple of exceptional 80s bands — Simple Minds and Big Country. Take a listen to Pompeii and decide for yourself.
  • Stories Don’t End — Dawes
    Dawes came on the scene a couple of years ago and I’ve really warmed to their sound. At first I wrote them off as Avett Brothers/Mumford clones, but in fact their sound is much less folk and much more 70s Los Angeles. Their sound has been called “Laurel Canyon” and I suppose that’s fair, but what’s wrong with being compared to the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac? Stories Don’t End is a great album — my favorite song is From a Window Seat.
  • Trouble Will Find Me — The National
    This Brooklyn band has been a staple on my “best of” lists over the past few years and for good reason. The National has carved out a unique sound amongst a wave of similar-sounding bands. You can have your One Republics, your fun, your Vampire Weekends. I’ll take the dark and gorgeous sound of Matt Berninger’s baritone. Trouble Will Find Me is another solid effort and remember, Don’t Swallow the Cap.
  • Lightning Bolt — Pearl Jam
    When I heard the first release from the new Pearl Jam album I wasn’t sure I liked it, which is odd for me as I love PJ, but one thing you can always count on with PJ is that they make complete albums and after a few listens I quickly became a fan of Lightning Bolt. It’s definitely harder rocking than 2009s Backspacer, which I LOVE, but Lightning Bolt is solid top to bottom. All things considered, PJ has secured its spot as the best and most consistent band from the 90s grunge era. Sirens is the best track on the new album in my humble opinion. Classic PJ.
  • Mechanical Bull — Kings of Leon
    KoL is a throwback. They consistently rock and seem to tour non stop. You know what you’re going to get with the Followill guys and if you like their sound you will love Mechanical Bull. I’m a fan and believe they are the best pure rock and roll band in America right now. 2008s Only By the Night was a breakthrough album and one of the biggest successes of the decade, and they followed it up with 2010s solid Come Around Sundown. I think Mechanical Bull is better than Come Around Sundown! So many great songs on Mechanical Bull, but my favorite is probably Temple.
  • Reflektor — Arcade Fire
    Surely no album had as much anticipation this year as Reflektor given the enormous critical success of The Suburbs in 2010. It was my favorite album that year and won the Grammy for best album as well. It has found a place on my all-time favorites list. A tough act to follow indeed, and while Reflektor is excellent it is not The Suburbs. Reflektor is, however, a beautiful concept album of Caribbean rhythms and mythological messaging. Leave it to Arcade Fire to produce an album that loosely tells the story of Eurydice with some voodoo thrown in. Reflektor is an album best listened to in its entirety. Sure there are some singles (like Reflektor) that will be hits and already are, but it flows together so well. Grab some headphones and a free hour or so and settle in.
  • Momentum — Jamie Cullum
    I’ve been singing the praises for Jamie Cullum for many years and his albums always seem to find their way onto my top 10 lists because they are so listenable. I continue to be surprised that Jamie is not a huge star in America like he is in the U.K. Dude even married a supermodel and still gets no love in the U.S. Well, America’s loss. Momentum is pure jazz/pop genius. If you don’t know Jamie Cullum you are missing out, and Momentum is a great place to start. Check out his beautiful cover of Pure Imagination or the synth happy Everything You Didn’t Do, which has one of the coolest videos ever.
  • More Than Just a Dream — Fitz and the Tantrums
    When Fitz and the Tantrums exploded on the scene in 2010 with Picking up the Pieces they could easily have been a one album wonder. Yes, the sound was a throwback and the look was pure 80s, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better song in 2010 than L.O.V. or Moneygrabber. But this year Fitz returned with the disco infused More Than Just a Dream and it’s even better than the first album. I was fortunate enough to see the band perform in Del Mar earlier this year and they brought down the house. Amazing sound and such a fun live band. 6 a.m. was my favorite song of the summer.
  • Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action — Franz Ferdinand
    Any fan of 80s music has to like Franz Ferdinand! If you loved their first three albums as I did, four years was way too long to wait for this year’s Right Thoughts. But it was worth the wait…another 80s and disco infused album of great songs from beginning to end. Right Thoughts set the tone and came with one of the best videos in a long while. The album has been a mainstay on my playlist since its release this summer. It’s hard to have a unique sound while simultaneously harkening back to the 80s and even 70s disco but Franz Ferdinand pulls it off like no other.
  • Bankrupt! — Phoenix
    No album got more plays for me this year than Bankrupt! and in fact I’m still listening to it a ton. The French band’s first album since 2009’s breakout smash Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (one of my favorite albums of the 2000s) is a slight departure from that album’s pure synth-pop goodness, but it’s fantastic in its own right. Bankrupt! topped several charts this year and for a while this summer Phoenix was everywhere. The first release, Entertainment, took over the airwaves in April when it came out and a few months later Trying to be Cool was equally ubiquitous. My only disappointment this year was that Phoenix cancelled its concert in La Jolla in October and I didn’t get a chance to see them live. Maybe they’ll tour again in 2014.

Len’s Top Albums of 2012

Len’s Top Albums of 2011