David Bowie – Black Star
On January 10th, the world awoke to the news that David Bowie was dead. As unprepared as we were for that bombshell, how could we have foreseen that the death of a beloved musician would become such a defining theme for the year? Following Bowie, we lost Phife Dawg. Then Merle Haggard, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell and Sharon Jones. Bowie didn't have anyone else in mind when he made his final record, but Black Star is certainly about facing death head on. In that way, it speaks for all of the losses we've experienced this year.
David Bowie created art literally until the day he died. Black Star is not an easy record, but like all great albums, it rewards repeated listens. A jazz-inflected masterpiece with subtle dance grooves and candid reflections on the nature of death, it is an exit story that is the stuff of legend.
Hiss Golden Messenger - Heart Like a Levee
The first time I heard “Biloxi” - the first single from Heart Like a Levee - I was driving 65 miles per hour down Highway 17. My wife was riding shotgun, and we were returning to a rented beach house to rejoin our family. We had just wrapped up a surreptitious visit to a nearby hospital to confirm that she was pregnant with our first child. The secret wasn't out yet, but we were on top of the world. There couldn’t have been a better soundtrack for that feeling than “Biloxi,” a sunny rocker with lyrics about fatherhood and having a good time. The rest of the record from this Durham band is equally moving, but also funky. This is music made for families by a family band, related not by blood but by a shared sense of community, a respect for talent, and a true love for the crate-digger sounds of gospel, funk and the blues.
The Skiffle Players - Skifflin
The Skiffle Players are Cass McCombs, Neal Casal and the members of Beachwood Sparks. Their debut record Skifflin' is breezy and melodic with psych jams that sound throwback and modern at the same time. This record flew under the radar and made those of us who dug it feel like we were in on an epic secret.
Heron Oblivion – self-titled
Heron Oblivion’s self-titled debut is the best psychedelic record of the year. It blends the light vapor of Meg Baird’s vocals with the chaotic squall of Ethan Miller and Noel von Harmonson’s guitars. It’s an album of contrasts, where quiet shoots to loud and soft quickly becomes harsh. Drawing from contemporary noise music and 1960s surrealism, it’s full of Doug Martsch-esque freakouts that stick to you.
Terry Allen – Lubbock (on everything) / Juarez
Chapel Hill's Paradise of Bachelors undertook a reissue campaign for Terry Allen's two best records, and it was one of this year’s most ambitious projects. First, they released 1975’s Juarez and then later in the year, the 1979 masterpiece Lubbock (on everything). Both reissues are homeruns. Terry is a multi-faceted artist, with paintings, sculptures, and installations featured in galleries around the globe. But he’s also an outlaw-country singer who, flying a little farther under the radar than his contemporaries Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson, never quite tapped the mainstream of country music. The packaging of these deluxe reissues puts his visual art front and center, establishing a diorama for classic songs sung by a Texas story-teller.
Vince Staples – Prima Donna
One look through the Cream Puff Records vinyl inventory will tell you that we don’t purport to be hip hop heads. But the emergence of Vince Staples over the past couple of years has gotten us fired up. With more substance than most of his contemporaries, yet less cerebral (in a good way) than a Kendrick Lamar record, Prima Donna is a perfect blend of uptempo and introspective hip hop.
Benji Hughes – Songs in the Key of Animals
Benji Hughes stands alone. There are a couple of current acts (Har Mar Superstar, Andrew WK) that mix humor and pop music the way he does, and there are certain antecedents with whom Benji shares an orbit (Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson). But I can’t think of anyone who pulls it off quite like this Charlottean does. Songs in the Key of Animals is his debut for Merge Records and his first full-length in eight years. Half classic pop songcraft (see “Freaky Feedback Blues”), half goofball charm (see “Girls Love Shoes”), it’s another cult classic from a true eccentric.
Steve Gunn – Eyes on the Lines
Steve Gunn got off to an inauspicious start. For years, he was content to just be one of the country’s best underground guitar players. No flash. No fuss. Over the past couple of years though, he has taken a few more steps into the spotlight, developing into one of the best songwriting frontmen in the US. Eyes on the Lines is Gunn's third solo release and first for Matador. Full of robust guitar solos and songs about life on the road, the record carries the torch for Neil Young and The Allman Brothers Band and suggests that Gunn won't be ceding the spotlight any time soon.
Flock of Dimes – If You Hear Me, Say Yes
Jenn Wasner is probably best known as one half of Wye Oak, but she got our attention when she joined the Future Islands in 2011 for “The Great Fire,” a standout track on their record On the Water. Five years later, the Durham resident is back with her solo debut as Flock of Dimes. It’s got a lot of the same touchpoints as the Future Islands too: emotive lyrics, bouncy synths, nods to Kraftwerk, infectious pop energy.
Fela Kuti Reissues
Back in 2010, Knitting Factory records acquired the rights to Fela Kuti’s entire catalogue and undertook the mammoth task of reissuing all 45 albums on vinyl. Starting with box sets followed by individual releases, Knitting Factory has reissued the albums piecemeal since 2010. This year saw the third installment of individual albums, including a couple of essentials. Zombie (1976) is arguably Fela’s best record, Fela’s London Scene (1972) expanded his reach and brought Ginger Baker under his spell, and Afrodisiac (1973) is the record that partially inspired Brian Eno and David Byrne to make Remain in Light. Fela invented afrobeat, a music that distills Nigerian highlife, American jazz and funk, and James Brown showmanship. This collection of reissues is essential.
William Tyler – Modern Country
William Tyler blends all of the great attributes of American guitar music, and like his peer Steve Gunn, Tyler’s music is best heard behind the wheel of a car moving quickly across state lines. On Modern Country, he assembles a crack band that includes Glenn Kotche on drums and Phil Cook on keys. The full band brings new texture to Tyler’s songs, adding hints of motorik rhythms and psych undertones to his haunting instrumental compositions.
Mary Lattimore – At the Dam
Asheville native Mary Lattimore’s harp music weds Medieval sonic vibrations with the ghostly glitches of today’s electronic technology. Playing a harp filtered through an effects pedal, she creates music that is unlike anything you’ve heard before. At the Dam is a collection of meditative soundscapes, the result of a cross-country songwriting trip funded by a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. It is heady, psychedelic, ambient, and gorgeous.
Jack Rose – I Do Play Rock & Roll / Mr. Ragtime & His Pals / self-titled
You may not be familiar with Jack Rose’s output, but if you’ve spent any time listening to Kurt Vile, Steve Gunn, or William Tyler, you’re already familiar with his influence. Rose was a pioneer in blending traditional American finger picking with Indian ragas and the dissonant tones of drone music. In partnership with the label VHF, North Carolina’s Three Lobed Recordings reissued three of Jack’s albums this Fall. All three are stellar.
Lee Fields & The Expressions – Special Night
One of the best trends of the past decade has been the newfound fascination with 1960s and 1970s-style R&B music. The legendary Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones were at the forefront of the rebirth, and Charles Bradley has been carrying the torch recently as well. Lee Fields, (born in Wilson, NC) is a bit lesser known, but he is equally responsible for bringing the sound back to the mainstream. His 2012 release Faithful Man is one of Cream Puff’s favorite records, and Special Night finds him approaching that peak. The A side is a five-song array of soul perfection, including consecutive classics "Work to Do" and “Never Be Another You.” The B side kicks off with the horn funk stunner “Make the World” before winding back down with love songs to close the record.
Cass McCombs – Mangy Love
Cass McCombs’ Mangy Love has it all. Depth of lyrics, groove, world-class production. McCombs has spent years establishing himself as one of our generation’s best songwriters, and with the double shot of Mangy Love and Skifflin’ this year – not to mention his take on the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” for the Day of the Dead compilation – he has proven his case.
Kelsey Lu – Church
Like Mary Lattimore, Charlotte native Kelsey Lu plays experimental music by filtering a classical instrument through an effects pedal. Lu plays cello instead of harp, and unlike Mary Lattimore, Lu sings. The album was recorded in a church, which provides the optimal setting for her soaring vocals and minimalist instrumentation.
Lambchop – FLOTUS
In addition to serving as leader of seminal rock band Lambchop, Kurt Wagner is a painter whose work is featured in galleries and on his own record covers. As a band, Lambchop’s catalogue covers everything from from alt-country to string-quartet lounge music. Crossing genres and mediums, it’s clear that Wagner is a restless artist. On this year’s FLOTUS, the exploration continues as he takes his band into electronic territory, using synthesizers, drum machines, and vocal manipulators to create spooky, danceable songs. Closing song “The Hustle” is an eighteen-minute delight.
Horseback – Dead Ringers
Jenks Miller had a great 2016. We've touched on a couple of his other releases below, but here we highlight Dead Ringers. It’s the latest release from Horseback, Miller’s doom-metal-meets-gothic-folk project. Two things stand out about this record. First, the band avoids the screaming vocals from previous releases, opting for a softer approach this go-round. Second, they embrace elements of electronic and dub music. The result is a fascinating blend of Southern gothic and electronic vibes.
Day of the Dead
With last year’s epic Fare Thee Well concerts, this year’s excellent showing from Dead & Co (Mayer is God!), and the release of Bob Weir’s first solo record since 1978, the surviving members of the The Grateful Dead have shown us that they remain as essential today as they ever have been. The five-disc Day of the Dead compilation provides the exclamation point. Curators Aaron and Bryce Dessner have assembled a who’s who of contemporary musicians to offer their unique takes on the Grateful Dead songbook. The headliners (The War on Drugs, Jim James, Courtney Barnett) are impressive, but it’s the deep cuts (“China Cat Sunflower” by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, “If I Had the World to Give” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Easy Wind” by Bill Callahan) that make this record shine. And if you haven’t heard the version of “Uncle John’s Band” performed by Lucius, listen to it right now. Right. Now.
North Carolina-based artists and record labels remain a driving force in the industry and are responsible for some of the year’s best records. Asheville-resident Angel Olsen produced pop gold with My Woman and offered stellar backup vocals on “Precita,” a highlight from standout alt-country band Mount Moriah’s How to Dance.
As lead guitarist in Mount Moriah, Jenks Miller (whose Horseback project we noted above) had his fingerprints all over How to Dance too. Blues from WHAT, his solo release on Three Lobed Recordings, was his third great record of the year, full of blues and drone experimentalism.
And then there is Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. It spent time at #1 on the charts and is showing up on a lot of year-end lists. It certainly lived up to the hype. Bon Iver is not generally considered a North Carolina band, but Durham mastermind Brad Cook was one of the producers of the album. Add to this Cook's expert production turn on Heart Like a Levee, and you have a studio legend in the making.
We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, A Tribe Called Quest's first record in 18 years, shocked the world and emerged quickly as a contender for both best rap and best overall album of the year. It was a perfect homage to Phife Dawg, the beloved co-founder of Tribe who sadly passed away earlier this year.
Fellow Native Tongues alumni De La Soul struck gold with and the Anonymous Nobody, especially with "Pain," a head-nodder featuring Snoop Dogg. The rabble-rousing oddball Danny Brown continued his hot streak with Atrocity Exhibition. Both of these records are getting lots of airtime at Cream Puff HQ as the year winds down.
Kendrick Lamar had a good year too. In addition to guest spots on both the Tribe and Danny Brown LPs, he released his own EP Untitled Unmastered. It was notably understated compared to last year’s opus To Pimp a Butterfly, but with songs as approachable as “Untitled 06,” it was a record that required a lot less brainpower to enjoy.
Sun City Eater in the River of Light is another killer release from Woods, a band whose influence stretches further than its press coverage. They continue to explore the tones and pop vibes of the early 1970s Grateful Dead, but this record also draws from the African Diaspora, conjuring everything from Herbie Hancock to Senegalese jazz to The Heart of the Congos.
Woods is not the only New York band to release a mind-blowing record this year. On Inner Journey Out, The Psychic Ills bury endlessly pleasant melodies under a layer of hypnotic fuzz. Don’t sleep on this one – it gets better with each listen.
Also from New York: Chris Forsyth unleashed a cosmic guitar assault on his double-album The Rarity of Experience, and Diiv continued to deliver their brand of shoegaze Krautrock bliss on Is The Is Are.
Rangda is an instrumental, avant-garde trio made up of Ben Chasny, Richard Bishop and Chris Corsano. The Heretic’s Bargain features brutal rhythms with aggressive, melodic riffs, and lots of improvisation.
Philadelphia’s Spacin’ makes similar use of free form noise, but their lo-fi songs are laid back with a bit more pop sensibility. On Total Freedom, they tip their hat to The Velvet Underground and include songs reminiscent of that Ty Segall/White Fence record from a couple years ago, but with softer edges.
Simply because of the instrument she plays, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s Ears sounds unlike any other record released this year. Playing the Buchla Music Easel, a one-of-a-kind synthesizer that looks more like an operator switchboard than a musical instrument, she makes music that brings 1980s New Age into the Animal Collective era.
On The Visitor, Kadhja Bonet’s contralto vocals front an orchestral collection of psychedelic soul songs. The record resembles a trippy James Bond soundtrack.
Daniel Bachman's self-titled release is another solid display of instrumental finger-picking on acoustic guitar. It's structured and spacey at the same time. Nathan Bowles mines the same territory with his banjo on Whole and Cloven. Both records display the transportive power of experimental string music.
Bachman and Bowles are often described as purveyors of the New Cosmic America, a category to which Ryley Walker and MV & EE are also sometimes assigned. Walker's record Golden Sings That Have Been Sung blends the acoustic pastoralism of his previous releases with elements of post-rock pioneered by Chicago sound veterans Tortoise and Jim O’Rourke. On Root/Void, MV & EE take their time exploring the outer limits of fuzzy guitar music, with an edge hidden underneath.
A year wouldn’t be complete without a release from Thee Oh Sees, and this year we got two: A Weird Exits and its companion piece An Odd Entrances. John Dwyer’s ever-evolving project is as good a live act as you’ll see, and both of these releases continue his solid streak of quality psych punk albums.
Dwyer’s protégé Ty Segall also put out a couple of good records this year, including one by GOGGS, a project where he plays guitar with Ex-Cult frontman Chris Shaw on vox and Charlie Mootheart on drums. It’s an homage to the Stooges, and it is t.u.f.f.
On Calico Review, the Allah Las present the mellower side of Los Angeles. It's their third-straight record of sunny surf rock and faded psych.
Bob Weir must have been inspired by all of the recent activity within the Grateful Dead’s orbit. Blue Mountain, his first solo record since 1978, is a great collection of cowboy songs.
Last year's Star Wars was Wilco's best record in years. This year's Schmilco is even better.
Charles Bradley’s Changes features more R&B classics from the “Screaming Eagle of Soul." His spot-on cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” is on the short list for Song of the Year.
Another solid gold cover this year was country singer Sturgill Simpson’s version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” It's the standout song from this year’s excellent A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. It received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year for crying' out loud.
And finally, several excellent albums came in under the radar this year.
Black Dice’s Eric Copeland released Black Bubblegum, a bizarro collection of glitchy pop songs reminiscent of early Beck. On Singing Saw, Kevin Morby adds “Dorothy” and “I Have Been to the Mountain” to his growing list of modern classics.
Frankie Cosmos established herself as the introspective leader of millennial indie rock on Next Thing, and Whitney channelled the sonic excellence of Crosby Stills Nash & Young and Steely Dan on its horn-filled debut Light Upon the Lake.