The 2017 Twirlie Awards show has come and gone. We had fun making the lists and giving out the awards, but I feel like I’ve done you a bit of an injustice.
You see, my favorite art form is the album. When done right, it’s a collection of songs, perfectly put together by theme and sound, and sequenced according to the artist’s vision. An album can be to the song what a book is to a chapter. It can make a statement. It can BE a statement. At first, it strikes on two levels–lyrics and music. But the really good ones fuse into your heart and mind, and stay there, sometimes permanently.
I put together a list of what I considered to be my favorite albums that were released in (or close to) 2016, which were played on Twirl Radio last year. But all I gave you was a list. I didn’t give you any reason to go further than reading the list. So right now, I’d like to walk you through the Top 15 Albums of 2016, as announced on my show on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. 2016, although demoralizing in some ways, was a banner year for indie music. Here’s why I think you should check out these albums and support these fine artists.
1. Edward Rogers – Glass Marbles – ALBUM OF THE YEAR
This is an expansive album, 19 or 20 tracks deep (I’m not supposed to spill the beans about the playful bonus track at the end, am I?). Glass Marbles is a career highlight for UK-born, NYC resident Edward Rogers. It starts out guns blazing, with a couple of dramatic rockers (The World of Mystery, Denmark Street Forgotten). Now that Edward’s got your attention, the album then gets inside of his head with the brilliant Welcome to my Monday Morning!, to which every working stiff should be able to relate. The common theme of this record is that of the common man: more songs about working hard just to barely stay afloat, yearning songs about love, and flat out barnburners like Burn N Play, Glass Marbles, the sassy Olde House On The Hill, and my favorite, Bright Star–which features a Stones-like guitar bridge. The lyrics are elegantly written and eloquent. This album is very real and organic–it mirrors life itself. Producer Don Piper helped Edward orchestrate this masterpiece. Listen to the whole thing, in order. It’s paced perfectly–the tender moments are where they need to be, and the anthems propel the ship forward. This vital album is worth the journey, and you’ll learn more about Edward–and yourself–along the way.
2. Cult Of Wedge – Loch Ness Monsters and Motherships – RUNNER UP ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The latest album from UK-based Peter Hackett’s project, Cult Of Wedge, really cements his reputation as a purveyor of quirky, yet insightful and topical lyrics, which earned him Best Songwriting honors at this year’s Twirlies. His wry sense of humor, vocals, and musical mastery remind me of the solo career of the Who’s John Entwistle, a great cult hero in his own right. (Listen to “She’s A Witch”, and if you’re American, look up some of the British and Spanish historical references to decode this description of a rather scary woman, then listen to Entwistle’s “My Wife” to understand how Peter is his worthy successor.) But make no mistake–there is only one Peter Hackett. These songs are completely original, even as they pay homage to, or poke fun at, elements of British and American culture. Musical goodies and references abound–the sly bit of marimba on Wish Ourselves Away to accompany the words “before we’re out of touch, we’re out of time”, the references to Dukes of Hazzard, the Indy 500, the Eagles, and the line “she’s got a bible in the glovebox and a 45” in Miss America. The crowning lyrical achievement has got to be the plethora of tin foil hat references in Conspiracy Girl–which serves as the de facto title song, since there isn’t a song called Loch Ness Monsters and Motherships. Peter is a an accomplished multi instrumentalist, playing guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums–and self-producing it all. This is a smart little album that’s a big deal. Get it, and see what all the fuss is about.
3. Pacific Soul Ltd. – The Dance Divine
Ladies and gentlemen: soul is back! This incredibly fun, intelligent, and danceable album is the debut from Adam Marsland, Teresa Cowles, and Norman Kelsey, and also garnered our Ear Candy award. The vocals are stellar, and every song rings true. This original album starts off with a brief gospel-like vocal piece, then the fiery Pacific Soul Time races in, sounding like top-form Sly and the Family Stone. Tomorrow Brings Tonight is next, reminiscent of the Spinners. The title track conjures up thoughts of Rick James, and you should be up and moving by this point. Crazy kicks in, taking the tempo up even higher–the album is downright aerobic by this point! We need to take a breather after this, and Adam seems to understand this, so he gifts us with a slow, incredibly soulful version of God Only Knows. I think you can see my point–this album is a real tour de force. Pacific Soul Ltd. lovingly resuscitates an entire genre, painting with a palette of beloved American musical styles. All three vocalists are amazing, individually and together. Every song works well. My favorite track is the infectious Cowles-Marsland composition We Go High (#3 Song of the Year). But really, most of the songs on this album could have made it onto my Top 30 list, were it not for my self-imposed restriction of one song per artist on this list (damn rules!). Just get this one, and start dancing.
4. Gretchen’s Wheel – Fragile State and Behind The Curtain
I was a little bit late to the party on Gretchen’s Wheel, Nashville-based Lindsay Murray’s project, so I received two albums from her in the space of a couple of months. As a result, I got a crash course in excellent songwriting, top notch electric guitar work, and of course, beautifully haunting alto vocals, which earned Lindsay the Female Vocalist of the Year award. I couldn’t decide what to do here, so the only answer was to honor both albums at #4. Fragile State came first, and it reminds me of some of the early 90’s alternative rock that I love so well–zoomy, atmospheric, echoey guitars, and slightly offbeat melodic twists and turns. The tempo is slow, and the songs smolder intensely. Second To Last, The Fourth Wall, and Why Try are standout tracks which are representative of the overall sound. Most of the second album, Behind The Curtain, is more uptempo, which more closely mirrors one of Lindsay’s influences, power pop. But I wouldn’t describe most of the music here as being in that vein–it’s more elaborate than the prototypical examples of the genre. It rocks harder than the first album, but is still just as thoughtful and intense. Standouts on this one are Invisible Thief, Live Through You, This Petrified Heart, and the delightful Sloan cover Try To Make It, which also showed up on a Futureman Records compilation album. This is where Gretchen’s Wheel runs headlong into power pop, and shines magnificently. To me, these two records feel like a really great double album–two sides of a similar coin. Get them both–like me, you won’t be able to pick a favorite–they’re both excellent.
5. Identical Suns – Identical Suns
Transcontinental rock band? Songs with harmonies that shimmer as brightly as the Beach Boys, while other songs are as audacious as Urge Overkill? Who are these Identical Suns? None other than Todd Stanton from Ohio, and Rene Rodriguez from Southern California. These two met the old fashioned way–online, in a music chat room–and were match-made into forming a band by my radio brother Adam Waltemire (Pop Garden Radio), and the rest is history. These two have an almost psychic way of writing songs together–sending them back and forth, polishing them, until they are no longer “a Todd song” or “a Rene song”–but a true Identical Suns mind meld. Baby I’m Down is the perfect way to announce the band’s arrival, with its Raspberries-like vocals and lyrics, and roaring, yet sinewy guitar solos. The next four songs are magnificently informed by 70s pop, then E.M.I.L.Y. thunders in, and reminds you that the 90s existed. But that just sets the table for the Twirlie Award winning Song of the Year, “Common Ground”. This song is a transcendent summer anthem–driving down the road with your love, enjoying the journey. Soaring harmonies, chiming guitars. Completely uplifting, and I’ll stack it up against every other Song of the Year we’ve ever awarded. The Turn plays a bit like a rock opera, leading to another favorite, Unraveled–a quirky rocker concerned with a female romantic partner, who is, shall we say, a bit less than stable. I haven’t dared play this one in the same set as the aforementioned Cult of Wedge track “She’s A Witch”–but it’s in a similar, tongue-in-cheek vein. This record is a must have.
6. Lisa Said – No Turn Left Behind
Lisa Said (pronounced “Sa’yeed”) grew up in Tennessee, as part of a large Egyptian-American family. She’s based in the Washington, D.C. area now, and her debut album came as a welcome addition to our show. Crisp songwriting and infectious melodies, with an Americana bent, permeate the album. You can hear Middle Eastern textures in a couple of the songs. Lisa’s vocals are reminiscent of Allyson Seconds, also honored in our year-end lists. A lot of the songs are about being on the move, whether on the way out of a relationship, or out of town. Indeed, the most compelling photo in the album artwork is of Lisa driving a classic 60s car, with a cooly determined facial expression. Lisa Said is one of the new powerhouse voices on the music scene; you’d be wise to give a listen.
7. The Armoires – Incidental Light Show
Rex Broome and Christina Bulbenko form the nucleus of Los Angeles-based The Armoires, and arrived in 2016, seemingly fully formed–yes, there is an “Armoires Sound”! A big band, six pieces strong, they go beyond the usual rock instrumentation by featuring well-placed strings, harmonicas, and keyboards alongside the usual guitar, bass, and drums. Male/female vocals highlight the sound, which swings between ethereal, jangly, anthemic, and even punky. Their lyrics can be haunting, playful, and even a bit political–but always with heart and kindness. If you like your rock and roll to be sophisticated and layered, but accessible, get a copy of Incidental Light Show.
8. Brian Cullman – The Opposite Of Time
Veteran rock journalist Brian Cullman clearly knows his way around the English language. His music might be described as singer-songwriter, which usually signals folk–but in his case, he’s clearly steeped in the rock idiom. His voice and style remind me of another well-loved NYC artist, Don Piper. The Opposite Of Time contains great stories, and perfect, lively arrangements to bring them to life–and I’m always a sucker for the occasional slide guitar. This album would have easily found a home in the late 80s-early 90s sweet spot that I love so well, when guitars and melodies were king. Instead, this witty record finds a home in our Top 10. You’ll need this album, so what are you waiting for?
9. Allyson Seconds – Little World
Two words: Sacramento proud. Allyson Seconds’ sophomore effort is a fine one. She’s a longtime rocker from right here in California’s capital city–known for singing harmony and playing electric guitar in various bands. This is her second collaboration with Sacramento native Anton Barbeau, who persuaded her to step out in front. His songwriting was perfectly crafted to fit Allyson’s voice and attitude. The feel is equal parts sunny California hippie, moody alternative rock, and edgy art-rock. Anton’s quirk factor is felt throughout, and other contributors include Karla Kane (Corner Laughers), my favorite west coast cellist Alison Sharkey, and even Colin Moulding(!) of XTC. This album is rightfully getting Allyson some rave reviews outside of our region–including a nice review on NPR! The spectacular title track is our #2 Song of the Year. Do yourself a favor, and give this record a good home.
10. Girls On Grass – Girls On Grass
Barbara Endes is the mastermind behind Girls On Grass, a leading light in the…wait for it…Brooklyn, NY Americana scene! If the Blasters, Jayhawks, and Lucinda Williams got into a cab driven by Joe Strummer–well, it would be pretty crowded in there, but this record might appear. There’s a definitive rock influence here, but cowpunk emerges as the dominant sound. Barbara is a fine songwriter, and the music really does hit that perfect balance between rock and country–not too far in either direction, but this is certainly no middle of the road affair. Catchy melodies abound, and several of these songs linger in your mind long after you’ve turned off your record player. What are you waiting for–do you need me to give you a ride to the store to pick up a copy?
11. Anton Barbeau – Magic Act
Another Sacramento legend made good: Anton Barbeau turns in one of the finest recorded performances of his career with Magic Act. There is nobody else like Anton on this top albums list–really, this quirky, inventive singer-songwriter pretty much has only two musical peers in the last 30 or so years: Robyn Hitchcock and Julian Cope. It only makes sense that he relocated first to the UK, then to Berlin–our small city simply could not contain all this talent. Thankfully, he comes back and visits often–his live shows are not to be missed. On Magic Act, the melodies are wonderfully catchy, the song titles are funny and odd, and the lyrics are often both inscrutable AND accessible–in the same song! (Remember–this is the same gifted lyricist who changed up his usual style to write for Allyson Seconds.) He’s one of my favorite radio guests–we always have a good chat about music–and he turns out to be a really nice guy as well. Run, don’t walk, and get a copy of Magic Act!
12. Bill Lloyd – Lloyd-ering
Bill Lloyd, the power pop half of legendary country duo Foster & Lloyd, has made a career out of doing–well, everything! He’s produced records, been a session player for the likes of Buck Owens, Ray Davies, and Glenn Tilbrook, and written songs for artists like Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, and many others. But what got him on our list this year was his wonderful collection of power pop covers–hits from the DBs, Raspberries, Byrds, Hollies, and more. He’s made these songs his own. In many cases, I’ve not heard the originals, so when I do–I’ll be comparing those to these Lloyd versions. I’m not a big fan of covers–so it’s a tribute to how high he’s set the bar with this album. I love all these songs! They were mostly recorded over the past couple of decades on various small labels. My friends at SpyderPop Records had the foresight to compile these tracks onto one album, so the world could hear, all in one place, Bill’s artistry and commitment to pretty much the entire history of power pop. This is one you should add to your collection.
13. The Well Wishers – Comes And Goes
The Well Wishers are San Franciscan Jeff Shelton’s long time project. Where Bill Lloyd brings the power pop jangle, Jeff brings more of the crunch and roar of the genre to the fine Comes And Goes record. I’ve been on board the Well Wishers bandwagon for about 3 albums now; this one is my favorite. It’s a solid, tight collection of driving, high energy songs that feature great melodies and instrumentation that wouldn’t be out of place on a mid-1990s Matthew Sweet album. This rousing album does more for me than caffeine–I want to drive fast, run fast, and bike fast, while listening to these songs. Give it a try, and you’ll see what I mean–get some Well Wishers into your life.
14. Jason Berk – Everything Old Is New Again
It’s kind of ironic–the first time I ever heard of Jason Berk was at an IPO show in San Francisco a couple of years ago. The young singer-songwriter played a fiery, but cordial solo set on the Hotel Utah stage. I immediately knew this guy would be a Twirl Radio favorite, so I bought a copy of his Coming Home album–from the aforementioned Jeff Shelton, who was working the merch table that night! So ever since then, Jason’s kept me in the inner circle of media outlets whenever he’s had new music. Everything Old Is New Again is a very personal album that chronicles a devastating breakup. But Jason (our Male Vocalist of the Year) didn’t just sit on the couch and sulk, like I would have. Instead, he created some art–11 well-crafted songs that feature his soulful vocals, intelligent lyrics, and tasteful guitar work. Some of the songs are more acoustic, some more full-band rockin’, but they all fit together. This pop is classic and timeless, and I’m sure you’ll need it to be part of your collection.
15. SLD (Sounds Like Digging) – Indigo Gray
Brooklyn, NY cousins Tom Parisi and Paul Costanza form SLD, and Indigo Gray, their debut album, materializes from out of nowhere. Infectious power pop tunes ring true at every listen. Tom and Paul’s pop sensibilities always lead them to making the right musical choices. You can tell they made the record they wanted to listen to. Soaring vocal harmonies and layers of guitars make this gem of an album a sonic pleasure to listen to. These songs could have been at home in the melodic heydays of the 1970s or 1990s, but instead, belong to 2016, a banner year for indie rock and roll. Get Indigo Gray immediately!
And that wraps up our Top 15 Albums of 2016. Let’s go out now and listen to 2017!
See the full list of Twirlie Awards.