The Best New Releases I Heard in 2016: Q2 | Willie Edward Smith

Andrew Bird has long been a master of all things vintage, but on Are You Serious, he plays Time Lord.

There’s this saying about time being a river. For the majority of my life, I would pace and schedule my life by the length of songs. As a result, I was usually late, because the music’s impact on my psychological state would often demand my attention until its conclusion. Such was the case with the best music of this year. It was a perpetual stream of quality content, demanding my full attention for that given moment in time, fleeting moments of escapism or reconciliation with harsh reality. The coldness of the winter was met with an appropriate thawing.

Spring 2016

Andrew Bird | Are You Serious (Loma Vista)

I’ve forgiven myself for selling my Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire CDs to Vintage Vinyl for bus fare back at the turn of the century. I don’t fault myself for not finding the Swimming Hour in step with my taste when it was released. I was more than happy to eat crow when I caught Bird’s Daytrotter session featuring Weather Systems–era material. You’d think I’d be prepared for Bird to turn the tables on his fans yet again when he announced a new album, right? I wasn’t ready.

I could swear I heard the needle hit the vinyl the first time I heard “Capsized,” even if no such sound existed on the track. Bird has been a master of all things vintage for as long as I can recall, but on Are You Serious, he plays Time Lord. The past and present take their turns sharing the spotlight. The varying elements come together in the most natural and pleasing ways, familiar acquaintances who never had the opportunity to grow closer, now recognizing their kindred nature. I can say without a doubt that fans received one of the most accomplished and accessible albums of Bird’s career—or anyone of his generation, for that matter.

Paul Simon | Stranger to Stranger (Concord)

My affinity for folk-rock singer-songwriters who surged to the prominence in the late ’60s and early ’70s is stitched into the fabric of my musical sensibilities. It just so happens that these artists adopted the use of synthesizers and heavy compression during the ’80s, preventing me from appreciating them as a kid. Their saving grace was the early- to mid-’90s career revivals that saw the best of them refining and mastering the use of those synthetic elements. Others returned to their organic roots.

Paul Simon embodies that timeline better than most. As a kid, I was not a fan of Graceland, and preferred the melancholy of Simon & Garfunkel over his solo work. As a twentysomething, I found You’re the One reassuring. Then Simon made a quantum leap aesthetically. The production choices in subsequent albums flattered his songwriting in ways few aging artists have been able to capture so well. I was doubtful Simon would be up to maintaining this new standard of excellence. Many legends milk superficial acclaim and coast on their reputation; simply bothering to release material at all given their legendary status is considered magnanimous. My doubts were alleviated, and I found myself humbled with the execution of craft and the honesty in Simon’s reflections on artifice and mortality. Strange to Stranger offers moments of levity and gravity, providing comfort to those mourning the loss of familiar things.

Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle | Colvin & Earle (Fantasy)

There have been a number of enjoyable team-up albums in recent years. Sometimes the work of the artists is complementary; other times it is a beast of another nature from their solo work. Generally speaking, these sorts of projects run the risk of alienating one fan base or another, if not both, if the pairing flounders. Maybe we can credit their touring together, or their shared decades of artistry, but for whatever reason, Colvin & Earle is a great listen, sounding like the two artists have released collaborations together for years. They deal in every sort of roots music while remaining true to their foundations as contemporary singer songwriters of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with fingerprints on the cornerstones of alt-country and contemporary Folk. It feels timeless in a way, nostalgic and vital all at once.

The Tragically Hip | Man Machine Poem (Caroline Int’l.)

Prior to the Tragically Hip announcing frontman Gordon Downie’s battle with cancer, the urgency and liberation so adeptly at play on Man Machine Poem seemed to be the next logical step in what felt like a late career revitalization for the band. I’ve been a heart-on-my-sleeve fan of the Hip for the better part of 20 years, and for them to put together a record that feels so rooted in this very moment sonically, but true to the breadth of their work over the last 30 years, is rarefied air. Man Machine Poem feels triumphant at times; at others, the artful dislocation forces a quasi-Zen state. It makes you step outside yourself to realize that, amid all the pleasing sounds you’ve come to expect, there are asynchronous nuances stimulating your mind. It’s therapeutic and, in retrospect, a masterfully crafted projection of their circumstances, which many fans, myself included, were not privy to.

Then came the news of the diagnosis, and the tour, and the broadcast of what was expected to be their final show. All of this served to underscore the significance of this album, its role in their lives through its creation and what’s become of their and our reality since. It’s not the first time artists confronted the prospect of death as they composed a musical document, but given the losses through June 2016, the vigilance of the Tragically Hip was, and continues to be, a source of inspiration.

Margaret Glaspy | Emotions and Math (ATO)

If I learned anything in 2016, it was that listening to college and noncommercial radio is a booster shot for your faith in the music makers of the world—if the music director is on their A-game. We’re lucky in my neck of the woods, and for that reason “You & I” knocked me off my feet and had me trying to figure who’d written such a catchy number. The benefits of doing your research never cease, and I found myself duly impressed with the EP released ahead of Margaret Glaspy’s major label debut from whence it came. I am of the belief that artists who put equal effort into lyrics and musicianship deserve extra recognition, and Glaspy is a prime example of why I have such a bias. Over the length of Emotions and Math, the song structures complement the emotional depth and complexity of their subjects, with the timbre of Glaspy’s voice and guitar punctuating those expressions. This album rests in the sweet spot between unadorned emotional vulnerability and masterful artistic control and intentionality. It left me feeling taken aback and ill-at-ease when songs were lashing out at encroaching targets, and as if a very specific sort of heartache had been siphoned out of me and channeled into this album. In that there is power. | Willie Edward Smith

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