Beyonce, Bon Iver, The Crane Wives, David Bowie, Angel Olsen, Of Montreal and Childish Gambino made the grade with Local Spins writers. See who else impressed our critics in 2016.
The music scene had its ups and downs in 2016.
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The year saw the passing of David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, Ralph Stanley, Leon Russell, Greg Lake, Keith Emerson and so many more, but also boasted the continued emergence of West Michigan’s music scene, with not only regional artists testing their wings nationally but with expansion of local venues and opportunities for performing.
As for riveting 2016 releases, Local Spins once again asked its music writers to select the year’s best music — national and local, albums and songs — along with their most memorable concert experiences. Check out their diverse lists here and come back next week to Local Spins for Phase II: The best music of 2016 as selected by West Michigan musicians. (Have your own favorites? Share them in Comments below.)
THE WRITERS’ PICKS 2016
TRICIA WOOLFENDEN (Local Spins writer and co-host of “New Standards” at 6 p.m. Sundays on WYCE-FM 88.1)
1. Angel Olsen, “Sister” – “My Woman” makes good on the considerable promise of 2014’s “Burn Your Fire For No Witness.” Tear-stained ballads (“Heart Shaped Face”) and gritty pop confections (“Shut Up Kiss Me”) add up to one of the most incredible and incredibly listenable albums of the year. “Sister” is an ambitious, slow-build stretching its sun-dappled limbs out to a nearly eight-minute run-time. The second half of the song grounds the first, with Olsen repeating/pleading one final, gut-punch of a lyric – “All my life I thought I’d change” – for more than three minutes. Simple, beautiful and positively heart-breaking.
2. Beyoncé, “Formation” (off “Lemonade”)
3. Mitski, “Your Best American Girl” (off “Puberty 2”)
4. Bon Iver, “10 (Death Breast)” (off “22, A Million”)
5. Of Montreal, “Let’s Relate” (off “Innocence Reaches”)
6. James Blake, “I Need a Forest Fire (feat. Bon Iver)” (off “The Colour in Anything”)
7. Frightened Rabbit, “Get Out” (off “Painting of a Panic Attack”)
8. Caveman, “Never Going Back” (off “Otero War”)
9. Santigold, “Run the Races” (off “99¢”)
10. The Joy Formidable, “The Last Thing on My Mind” (off “Hitch”)
(Warning: video NSFW)
11. Agnes Obel, “Familiar” (off “Citizen of Glass”)
13. M83, “Go! (feat. Mai Lan)” (off “Junk”)
14. Weyes Blood, “Seven Words” (off Front Row Seat to Earth”)
15. Warpaint, “New Song” (off “Heads Up”)
16. Poliça, “Lime Habit” (off “United Crushers”)
17. Bayonne, “Waves” (off “Primitives”)
18. Okkervil River, “Call Yourself Renee” (off “Away”)
19. ANOHNI, “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?” (off “Hopelessness”)
20. James, “To My Surprise” (off “Girl at the End of the World”)
BEST LOCAL CONCERT: Of Montreal, Sept. 17 at the Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids – To watch Of Montreal frontman/singer/multi-instrumentalist Kevin Barnes lead his amorphous creation on stage is to submit to an evening of performance art, multiple costume changes, feathers, rubber masks and sweat. His visits to the Pyramid Scheme are always worth the effort and this latest sold-out appearance was no exception. Barnes is the kind of artist who uses glitter and synth music to make a cutting political statement. Arriving in the midst of a relentlessly volatile election season, the utterly uninhibited performance offered just the right mix of joy, hope and defiance.
RICKY OLMOS (Local Spins writer)
Bon Iver, “22, A Million” – Justin Vernon seems to be somewhat of a mad scientist. And as the mastermind behind the internationally-known collective, Bon Iver, he embraces his crazed artist persona with this eccentric batch of songs. Throughout its sonic evolution, this musical foray has experienced the orchestral ambience and layers of the self-titled “Bon Iver,” as well as the intensely stripped-back, raw tracks of For “Emma Forever Ago.” But the heart of the music has always been the same: Vernon uncovering his scars for the world to hear. This time around, in “22, A Million,” his words are surrounded by an exotic conglomeration of instruments. Some sounds are even indistinguishable. Synthesizers, namely the OP1, lay the foundation of the album. The LP also transcends the use of the human voice – Vocoders, Auto-tune, layering – they all manipulate the voice (albeit tastefully) in such a way that it becomes a new instrument. Oh, and let’s not forget the track titles, which look like secret code-names from a spy thriller, like “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” and “21 M◊◊N.” WATER.”
Chance The Rapper, “Coloring Book” – This 23-year-old rapper from Chicago became a world phenomenon in 2016 with his vibrant, optimistic approach to his art. A Grammy nomination, write-ups in every revered music publication and performances at The ESPYS, Saturday Night Live, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon. If you haven’t heard his name, it’s baffling. Quite possibly the album of the year, “Coloring Book” displays the passionate voice, enigmatic lyricism and an infectious energy Chance is garnering attention for, making it easy to see why he’s captured the world with his rhymes and soulful refrain.
David Bazan, “Blanco” – Few musical artists age well. But David Bazan’s musical direction and transformation has proven it can withstand the years like a smooth bourbon. From his beginnings as Pedro the Lion frontman, to his sprawling solo career, the Seattle songwriter has cultivated a devoted fan-base with his spiritual, tragic and controversial songs. The often-angsty indie-rocker mellows out in Blanco. Spacey synths are employed, electronically sampled drums replace a full kit and Bazan’s voice juxtaposes the lush soundscape with an effortless beauty.
John Paul White, “Beulah” – After reaching the pinnacle of folk stardom as one-half of the hauntingly beautiful duo, The Civil Wars, John Paul White hung his musical hat on its hook following the band’s sudden demise in 2012. The guitarist and songwriter retreated to his home in Alabama, but this year has returned, well rested, with fresh perspective and a brand new album. Heartbreaking songs with a breathe of vengeance unfold on “Beulah” as White (now backed by a full band) churns out his own brand of Southern rock and folk, burning a whole through the instrumentation with his seething tone.
Beyoncé, “Lemonade” – A powerhouse of a pop album that exceeds the commercial, manufactured rut that mainstream music can so often fall into. Beyoncé’s sixth studio album flourishes in creativity, and displays poetic and avante garden musical movements. It could have been easy for the superstar to put forth a lackluster effort and soak up radio airplay, but instead she spills her guts with a fierce confidence. Add to it the fact that the album is accompanied by stunning visual counterparts and was given a surprise release, foregoing traditional promotion, and you begin to get a sense of the caliber of this LP.
BEST CONCERT: Julien Baker at Ladies Literary Club in Grand Rapids — In between songs Julien Baker was barely audible. After applause, she would whisper “Thank-you” over the microphone in a delicate, hushed attempt. But when she opened her mouth to sing, a powerful voice pierced the room like a knife. Visually pouring every ounce of her being into her songs and performance, the audience was captivated by this young songwriter who had only an electric guitar and meaningful words.
TROY REMINK (Local Spins writer, music maven, musician and co-host of “New Standards” at 6 p.m. Sundays on WYCE-FM 88.1)
10. Lost Under Heaven, “Spiritual Songs For Lovers to Sing” – The year’s buzzed-about rock records — Carseat Headrest, Joyce Manor, the Hotelier, etc. — were gripping, but felt small-scale. I prefer mine ambitious to a fault, sprawling, messy, overreaching, and since there was no Titus Andronicus album this year, I feasted on this mammoth effort from ex-WU LYF frontman Ellery James Roberts.
9. Drive-By Truckers, “American Band” – For nearly 20 years, the mighty and newly reinvigorated Southern rock all-stars have been creating an alternate, stereotype-defying narrative of the American South that has never felt more valuable.
Listen: “What It Means”
8. Bon Iver, “22, A Million” – The skeletal electronics and heavy analog decay that were the headline-making departures on Bon Iver’s third album cannot obscure the intrinsic beauty of Justin Vernon’s songs.
Listen: “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”
7. Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book” – Hip-hop hitmakers like Kanye West and Drake released compelling work this year, but Chance’s exuberant mainstream emergence felt like a real torch-passing. When the world in 2016 offered darkness, the young Chicago MC rapped and sang for the pure joy of it.
Listen: “No Problem”
6. Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool” – Nothing took the wind out of me in 2016 like the surprise appearance of “True Love Waits,” the great, long-lost ’90s ballad that concludes Radiohead’s somber and heartrending ninth album, arriving like a sigh of acceptance toward a love unravelled.
5. A Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service” – Who saw this coming? The Tribe’s simultaneous comeback and farewell — Phife Dawg died during its recording — is an unrelenting statement of force and purpose that celebrates and reclaims the past without dwelling there.
Listen: “We the People”
4. Beyonce, “Lemonade” – Peak, all-cylinders Beyonce delivered the year’s best country song (“Daddy Lessons”), one of the year’s best rock songs (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”), the year’s fiercest political anthem and probably best all-around song (“Formation”), the year’s second-best Kendrick Lamar guest verse (“Freedom”), the year’s most piercing ode to lasting love (“All Night”) and, like, three of the best breakup songs ever written. Bow down already!
3. ANOHNI, “Hopelessness” – Unmatched vocal prowess, boundary-pushing beats, political clarity and operatic ambition haven’t collided this well since Bjork’s “Homogenic.” The artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty (of & the Johnsons) helpfully reminds us we were already doomed no matter what happened this year.
2. David Bowie, “Blackstar” – David Bowie released his best album in decades and died two days later. I hate that, but it makes perfect sense: A visionary exits the stage with his greatest magic trick yet, and a terrible year begins under a dark shroud that never lifts.
Listen: “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
1. The Range, “Potential” – This record came from nowhere and broke me in half every time I heard it. New York producer James Hinton extracts vocal hooks from amateur videos languishing in the cobwebbed corners of Youtube, then folds them into cathartic electro-pop anthems that rush into your chest like the first cold breath on a winter morning.
BEST CONCERT: Beyonce on June 14 at Ford Field in Detroit – I don’t put Beyonce on every Local Spins list I make simply to antagonize John Sinkevics, although that part is fun. I struggle to recall, in any year, a better execution of large-scale, conceptually sophisticated spectacle than the night Queen Bey’s heavenly rocketship stopped in Detroit to take us all to Red Lobster. Consider this boy slayed.
MATT MARN (Local Spins writer)
5. Matt Gabriel, “Fiction” – While it is quite a feat to show versatility throughout a full album, Gabriel ups the stakes here, showing a surprising span of tone and style in the span of a three-song EP. The songs span the range from a fast-paced, country twang-laden introduction to an up-tempo, bluesy number (complete with a great instrumental solo). The heart of the album lies in the lyrics: They are the most deeply personal, reflective songs Gabriel has ever written, standing in stark contrast to the ironic title.
Listen: “True North” (Live Local Live Version)
4. The Crane Wives, “Foxlore” – The Grand Rapids favorites have done it again, releasing a great display of thought-provoking lyrics with great folk-rock instrumentals in their newest album, “Foxlore.” Enjoy the melodies and vocals of the tracks, but don’t forget to look closer at the lyrics, and the powerful words and messages just beneath the surface – messages that seem to have been learned the hard way.
3. Loren Johnson, “Sleepsick” –Johnson’s strong voice and talented storytelling truly makes for a fun listen. In her EP, “Sleepsick,” the Grand Haven songwriter’s passion and pure fun performing shines through. Drawing both inspiration and support from her dear friends and loved ones, her songwriting is developed and powerful, proving further she loves what she is doing. I hear a full album is in store for 2017, and I can’t wait to hear it.
2. Jonny Carroll, “Leaving on the Light” – The passionate vocals behind Carroll’s newest album clearly come from a real place in his heart, as well as from his life. From upbeat tempo songs to the ballad about his travels abroad where he met ‘the one that got away,’ he weaves his songwriting with the perfect instrumentals for the tone of each song. Ever the passionate busking guitarist, Carroll has hit a home run with his newest album, and while he has recently moved away from Michigan, he plans to return frequently to perform in the area so plan on getting a ticket when he does.
Listen: “Leaving on the Light”
1. Channing and Quinn, “Up North” – The entertaining duo made up of Channing Lee and Quinn Mathews is a local favorite for good reason. With Channing’s powerful, often haunting vocals, accompanied by a variety of instruments played by both performers, the songs on this album further reflect the versatility of the pair. Not only is their first album fully recorded in Michigan, having moved here from Nashville, but the album is a blast from start to finish. From one song to the next, they can switch between humorous, upbeat tempos and somber, personal ballads which leave fans in tears (seen firsthand at live shows). I have been blown away from the first listen, and that hasn’t changed a bit.
Listen: “Death of Me”
BEST CONCERT: The Accidentals “Parking Lot” EP-Release Party at Founders Brewing – The air was electric as a packed Founder’s Brewing Co. helped Traverse City’s The Accidentals celebrate their new EP, “Parking Lot,” in early June. People were standing on tables, screaming in the crowd. I brought a close friend out for the evening to help enjoy the show. And seeing as that was his first Accidentals show, he certainly was not disappointed, soon joining the rest of the cheering capacity crowd. And when wordsmith, vocalist and friend of the band Rick Chyme took the stage to spin his words into the live version of The Accidentals’ title song, “Parking Lot,” my friend asked me who Chyme was. I told him, “Just listen. You’re in for a treat.”
NOLAN KREBS (Local Spins writer, member of the band Heaters
Doug Tuttle, “It Calls On Me” – This dude’s awesome. He’s done some great work in the now-defunct band MMOSS and also with his solo records – and his latest is his best yet. His guitar leads are amazing and the production on the album is killer.
Listen/Watch: “A Place for You”
Hoops, “Hoops EP” – Hoops! These guys are so good. Their drummer is James Allen from Jade TV and a bunch of other Grand Rapids bands, but their lead songwriter, Drew, writes some pretty brilliant stuff. Their recordings have a tasty haze across them, but their playing is super tight. (The band plays The Pyramid Scheme on Jan. 13.)
Angel Olsen, “My Woman” – Angel Olsen is so sick; it’s cool to hear her come into her own with such a masterful album. In some of the live videos I’ve seen of these songs, her voice sounds really strong.
Drakkar Nowhere, “Drakkar Nowhere” – I was introduced to these guys through our label, Beyond Beyond is Beyond, and the record they put out this year is fantastic. There are so many different sounds and textures within it; revisiting it is always interesting.
Natural Child, “Okey Dokey” – More great stuff from one of my favorite rock bands playing these days. Everything on the album sounds great and their songs have gotten a lot stronger. The jam on “Benny’s Here” is choice.
Holy Wave, “Freaks of Nurture” – I think they’re my favorite band ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Porches, “Pool” – Slightly outside my usual vibe, this record is sick. Really great sounds from the keys and bass, and homeboy’s a great songwriter.
Exploded View, “Exploded View” – I’m still just getting into this one, but the last couple of times that I’ve listened, it’s caught my attention. Pretty original-sounding stuff.
Night Beats, “Who Sold My Generation” – Night Beats are explosive. They’ve got their sound locked down, and they try out some new looks on this record that go over really well.
Psychic Ills, “Inner Journey Out” – I could listen to this stuff all day. It’s pretty minimalist but it’s lush, which is a cool combination. Great country influences here, too.
BEST CONCERT: Jimi Ben Band in France – Jimi Ben Band. On some sort of steel warship on a river in France. It was either the best show I saw all year or the worst.
DESHIA DUNN (Local Spins writer)
5. Kilo Kish, “Reflections in Real Time” — Abstract lyrically, conceptually and production-wise, this album earns an original name for itself. It’s theatrical, the way Kilo sings in a manner that mirrors a stream of consciousness; and in that same manner, it’s darkly comical and relatable.
Listen/Watch: “Existential Crisis”
4. Flatbush Zombies, “3001: A Laced Odyssey” — The concept of this hip-hop album is a play on Stanley Kubrick’s film, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the narrative holds up to its name. The production consists of slow, melodic and hypnotizing beats, with lyrical flows that are just as clever an enticing.
Listen/Watch: “The Odyssey”
3. Solange, “A Seat at the Table” — Simple yet elegant, Solange has managed to create an archive of songs that consistently embody a well-defined image of herself and convey a message of self-love. Songs like “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “F.U.B.U.” speak on the political nature of being Black in America, with interludes narrated by Master P drawing from personal experience.
Listen/Watch: “Cranes in the Sky”
2. Anderson Paak, “Malibu” — Anderson Paak made the XXL Freshman class cover this year, but his contributions extend beyond the world of hip hop. “Malibu” is a soulfully crafted album, a reflection of his Californian upbringing. It’s cohesive in all its elements, from the natural flow of the narrative to his smooth, rhythmic voice.
Listen/Watch: “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance”
1. Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love” — The first single of the album, “Me and Your Mama” sets the tone for the songs to follow. Gambino is primarily known to many as a rapper, but this album sets out to redefine his sound and his capabilities. He incorporates elements like rock, sultry blues, R&B and funk, and just lets loose. The man even sings his little heart out. In a way, he concocts familiar sounding oldies tunes with a contemporary spin on it, bridging the gap between the then and the now. A first listen will make you feel sentimental and refreshed at the same time.
BEST CONCERT: Erykah Badu on Nov. 12 at Camp Flognaw Carnival in Los Angeles, Calif. — Antsy and anxious, I was ready to collapse from having stood in the same spot for nearly five hours, listening to other musical acts before Erykah Badu. She was supposed to be on at 9:15 and it was already approaching 9:45. But soon enough, we heard her voice overhead– gentle and light– and she appeared under bright lights with her notoriously large, red velvet hat, and waist-length, sweeping braids. Charismatic and sweet, she apologized to us, and underneath the glow of the super moon, she opened the show with the song “Out My Mind, Just In Time” in her perfectly pristine voice. It was magical.
Copyright 2016, Spins On Music LLC