One of the best things ever written about lists was by the legendary New Yorker music critic Ellen Willis. It captures my feeling exactly if not way more eloquently than I ever could:
“The list game is as integral to rock as statistics are to baseball. In fact, it’s not criticism I’ve been taking too seriously all these years but list making. I worry over my criteria. (Do I pick the albums I play most or the ones I admire most?) Then I worry over the imperatives of the list itself, which transcend the merits of particular records. (To be truly satisfying, for instance, a ten-best list should have some sort of aesthetic and historical balance; if it doesn’t, something is wrong with the year’s output of albums or the reviewer’s listening habits, or both. And I hate to make arcane choices of albums that only I and three other critics have heard; sometimes it’s necessary, but it makes the list less elegant.) Before I know it, it’s May, and a ten-best list in May has all the appeal of a baseball game in January.”
With all this aforementioned psychological baggage that I share with the esteemed Ellen Willis, I present my list of favorite LPs and EPs for 2016. It was a year where I really didn’t listen to many new albums. I tended to alternate between my trove of jazz and finding new music on my Discover Weekly playlist provided each Monday by Spotify. Nor did I give much thought to the albums all the real critics are supposed to concern themselves with. Whether ubiquitous or obscure, this is the stuff I liked, hence “favorite” and not best.
Sia This Is Acting An album where a songwriter for hire gets to sing her own songs. Every song except for One Million Bullets was written for and rejected by somebody else: Cheap Thrills, Unstoppable and Reaper (Rihanna); Alive (Adele); Bird Set Free (Rihanna, Adele, and the movie Pitch Perfect 2); Footprints (Beyonce); Elastic Heart (Katy Perry); an unnamed song for Shakira (probably Move Your Body) and it’s believed that Christina Aguilera rejected Summer Rain. Listen to these songs with each of those singers in mind. You can clearly here how perfect they all would have been for each particular artist. Which is why Sia is such a great songwriter. But, dang, she’s a great singer, too.
Rosie Lowe Control The fact that Sir Elton John is a huge fan of this London-based singer should be enough to get your attention. Her sultry combination of 90s R&B meets electro-soul a’la The Weeknd gets mine. Get sucked in by the sensuous Who’s That Girl and then get hooked on the rest.
Banks The Altar Dark. Haunting. Mesmerizing. Melancholic. Sensual.
Katy B Honey This is less an album and more of a love letter to London dance clubs. Honey started out as a series of independent projects and turned into a collection of thirteen collaborations with different dance music producers. The result is like a box of mixed chocolates each with something different on the inside but all covered on the outside by Katy B’s sweet voice. That sweetness nearly moves me to tears each time I hear So Far Away.
And Turn the Music Louder (Rumble) featuring My Boy Tinie Tempah is a banging good time, especially in this 60s-themed video.
Delain Moonbathers Symphonic metal meets power pop in this Dutch band that features the exquisite Karen Carpenter-like vocals of Charlotte Wessels. Check out the song Suckerpunch.
Lindsey Stirling Brave Enough On her third album, Lindsey expands her fusion of classical, rock and EDM into pop, funk and even country. Her moving and powerful tribute to a dear friend who passed away, Gavi’s Song, will melt your heart.
The Joanna Connor Band Six String Stories Joanna is a Chicago-based guitar virtuoso who does it all from set-your-hair-on-fire slide guitar – you’ll be the one that needs to catch their breath after the opening song It’s A Woman’s Way - to R&B, funk, gospel and jazz. Plus she puts me on the guest list at the Chicago blues club Kingston Mines whenever I’m in town. 🙂
Betty Davis The Columbia Years 1968-1969 This historical delight consists of previously unreleased tracks from Miles Davis’ then-wife with bands consisting of Mitch Mitchell (the Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer) and soon-to-be jazz giants Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Hugh Masakela and members of The Crusaders. These are more demo tracks than finished productions and include covers by Cream (Politician) and Creedence Clearwater Revival (Born on the Bayou), along with her own originals. Eventually, she would go on to become a highly influential but commercially little known funk artist. Miles produced these tracks at a time when he was exploring his own jazz/funk/rock ideas that would eventually become the legendary Bitches Brew album.
While not intending to take away from how special each of the following artists are, these four EPs can be grouped together under the banner of indie/alternative pop: niche pop music artists that do not neatly fit into any of the broad categories of radio-ready sound. Instead, these kind of artists organically find their own fan bases. Each of these young women makes music featuring rich electronic arrangements and emotive, ethereal vocals.
- Verite´ Living
- Zealyn Limbic System
- Kitten Heaven or Somewhere In Between (I should add that this was #17 on Rolling Stone’s Top 20 Pop Albums of 2016 and included in The music that mattered most in 2016 by Canadian Broadcast Company/Radio.)
- Laura Welsh See Red
- Hana – Hana
Alex Newell Power Remember Sylvester from the disco days – the singer with the crazy high falsetto that compelled your body to the dance floor– You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and Dance Disco Heat? He’s been reincarnated into modern dance music as Alex Newell.
I hope you find something here that you’ll put in your own music rotation. And be on the lookout for a Part 2 on my year in concerts.
 I love that word. I wonder if Ms. Willis ever used that word. Probably not. And if she tried, an editor would probably have struck it out. My editor likes it, though. 🙂
 Sia decided to keep Reaper for herself and took it back from Rihanna.
 In a Rolling Stone interview, Sia said she wrote a song that was rejected by Shakira and you’d know it when you heard it, so this is my guess.
 By the way, getting songs rejected is not a big deal. The big name artists get dozens of song submissions from all the best songwriters for their album projects. And Sia says she gets 20-30 requests per week to write songs for other artists.
 And if you don’t remember, do not pass go, do not collect $200 until you find them on your Google Machine and listen immediately.