Favourites in 2016: Popular music

December 28, 2016

Continuing with the year-end nostalgia, the theme for today is popular music.

In a year when I spent a considerable amount of time listening, it is discouraging to arrive at year’s end with so little to show for it. For whatever reason, I didn’t hear much this year that interested me.
leonard_cohen_you_want_it_darkerUntil a few weeks ago I wasn’t sure I would have any full album that I’d be comfortable calling my favourite of the year, but Leonard Cohen came to my rescue. You Want It Darker deserves the accolades it has received. It’s a dark record — I’m not sure that I, personally, would like it darker — but it has moments of real tenderness (“If I Didn’t Have Your Love”), and the haunting bleakness of the words is moderated by Cohen’s own warm humanity. Musically he retreats from the “live band” sound that I appreciated so much on Old Ideas in favour of synthesized sounds, but this, I take it, was in part because he was largely confined to his home during recording. His voice sounds great — limited, to be sure, and sometimes more speaking than singing, but still great.

Of course, we lost Leonard Cohen this year, which lends an extra poignancy to these songs. We knew it would happen one day. Each of his last three records I’d thought would be his last, and, sadly, I was finally right. He was ready, my Lord.

No other records made a strong appeal to me. I gave serious consideration to Nick Cave’s latest, but I don’t at present have the desire to spend much time with those devastatingly sad songs. I had high hopes for Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, but it slid away without leaving a trace. I have a feeling that Gillian Welch’s Revival revisit will be pretty terrific, but I haven’t yet had opportunity to hear it.



One song I loved this year: “Gale Song”, by The Lumineers. I find it mesmerizing:

My runner-up is Audrey Assad’s “Death Be Not Proud”, from her 2014 EP of the same name. The song is, of course, a riff on Donne’s sonnet:

To round out a top 3, I rather liked the Avett Brothers’ “No Hard Feelings”:


Children’s Music

Last year I praised the children’s records of Justin Roberts, and I’m going to do the same this year. We’ve been listening to him all year, again, and have not grown weary. This year we acquired two old records he made under the name “Why Not Sea Monsters?”, one consisting entirely of songs “from the Hebrew Scriptures” and another of songs “from the New Testament”. Collections of songs about Bible stories are a dime a dozen, but songs of this quality are not. There are songs on well-worn stories like Daniel and the lions, Noah and the ark, Joseph and his brothers, the Good Samaritan, the miracle of the loaves and fish, and the three wise men. But there are some lesser-known subjects too: a very lovely song about Ruth’s plea to Naomi to allow them to stay together (Ruth 1:16-17), and a superb song based on God’s reply to Job, for example. These records can be ordered directly from Justin; he signed those he sent to us.

He also released a new record this year, Lemonade, and it’s pretty terrific too. I like it better than that other Lemonade. It’s an all-acoustic album, with real people playing real instruments, and he’s written songs up to his usual standard — about rolling down the hill, about a pet octopus, about having a tree house, and, my favourite, a touching song called “How Lucky We Are” that captures that quiet feeling of security that comes from being in the company of loving family and friends. Thanks, Justin, for these fine songs.


And that, all too briefly, was the best of my year in popular music.

15 Responses to “Favourites in 2016: Popular music”

  1. Rob Grano Says:

    My pop music year was pretty sparse as well, possibly the sparsest ever for me (which is really saying something).

    I stumbled across Cat Power on a few soundtracks and followed up listening to a few of her CD’s (Cat Power is the stage name of singer-songwriter Chan Marshall). A couple of the albums were mixed bags, but I ended up really liking her most recent record, Sun, from 2012. It’s a sort of mash-up of Americana and electronica, definitely her own thing. But she’s an interesting lyricist and has a good voice.

    A couple years ago a bookstore I was in was playing the CD Bright Day by Emily Rodgers, a local artist. I’d not heard of her but I liked her music and her voice especially, so I bought the CD. Turns out she records for a label called Misra, which is a national indie label based in Pittsburgh. Her new record, Two Years, came out this past summer and it’s a great follow up to the previous one. The tunes are mostly downtempo, angular and slightly “alt country,” while Rodgers has got one of those voices that may be an acquired taste for some folks. I fell for it immediately, however, and thus was very happy to see this new record appear after a seven year gap.

    My favorite record this year is Slow Meadow’s eponymous release, which came out in late 2015. It’s an instrumental album, with piano, violin and cello serving as the core, with some layered keyboards and percussion as spice. The result is something that rests on the cusp of ambient and classical music — it’s more melodic and tuneful than most “ambient” music, but slower and more restful than a lot of contemporary classical. Whatever it is it’s absolutely gorgeous stuff.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Rob. Years ago I listened a bit to Cat Power, and I remember liking her quite a bit, but I never followed up. The other two you recommend are entirely new to me.

    I’ve found all three on Spotify, so I’ve added them to my playlist, and I hope to listen to them soon. Since none of them are Christmas music, however, they’ll have to wait a bit.

  3. Rob Grano Says:

    Any Christmas favorites this year? I try to buy a new Christmas record every year — this year’s was this:


    I like the Missa Carolae especially, in which Whitbourn sets the traditional words of the Mass to carol tunes. It’s the kind of thing that could turn out twee or flippant, but he’s done it very respectfully and with musical seriousness.

  4. Rolling down the Hill should not be followed by cherry cola and a long car ride. Ask me how I know!

  5. cburrell Says:

    Rob, that disc is on my radar, but I didn’t get a chance to hear it. It’ll be high on the list for next year.

    This year I enjoyed a terrific new disc of music for Advent, structured around the O Antiphons:


    The combination of voices and saxophone could be cheesy, but it isn’t. It reminds me somewhat of the collaboration of the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek. The music is a mix of polyphony and new compositions, and it’s very beautiful.

    My favourite Christmas disc this year is this one:


    And my second favourite is the most recent Christmas album from Kate Rusby:


  6. cburrell Says:

    MM, how do you know?

    • Anonymous Says:

      on second thought, maybe it’s better not to disclose too much. Let’s just say I was unwell, all over my poor brother.

  7. Mac Horton Says:

    I’m sorry to say I haven’t so far been really enthusiastic about Mr. Cohen’s last. Not that it doesn’t have merits, but on the basis of only a couple of complete listenings it wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of my list of his work.

    I have two Cat Power albums, Dear Sir and Moon Pix, obtained from eMusic back when it was ridiculously cheap. Haven’t heard them for a while but my reaction at the time was along the lines of “Interesting”, not really enthusiastic.

    Haven’t sampled Nick Cave’s newest but it’s on my “check it out” list.

    • Rob Grano Says:

      Yeah, Mac, I felt the same way about Moon Pix. (Haven’t heard Dear Sir). But I really like Sun a lot. The songs seem more consistently good and I like the touches of electronica.

  8. cburrell Says:

    Mac, it’s my favourite record of the year in a conspicuously weak year. I’d not rank it with his finest, but I would fit it comfortably into his second tier.

    The Nick Cave record is painfully sad. Do you know the story? I’m in a pretty happy place right now, with my children, and I couldn’t bear to spend much time with it.

    • Mac Horton Says:

      No, I didn’t know the story, but I just read it. Horrible. I don’t think I’ll be in a big hurry to hear it, though Cave is somebody whose work I’ve long intended to get to know better. My impression on the basis of a couple of albums is that when he’s good, he’s great.

      • cburrell Says:

        Yes, his best material is very good indeed, and even when I don’t like it, I can still recognize it as being substantive. Indeed, sometimes I don’t like it precisely because it is so potent, but dark.

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