Few albums sound more like growing up to me than Matt Nathanson’s Some Mad Hope. Last year, for my 26th birthday, I wrote a blog post where I chose one defining song from every year I’ve spent on the planet. “Car Crash,” the opening track from Some Mad Hope, was my pick for 2007. For me, that song—and this record in general—marked the end of youthful innocence and the beginning of something a little more complex and a little less black and white. It’s tough to imagine a better record for that moment in life than Some Mad Hope, which effortlessly pairs pop hooks and anthemic arrangements with emotionally weighty lyrical work. What is tough to process is the fact that this record—the one that marked the start of my journey from youth to adulthood—is now 10 years in the rearview.
Some Mad Hope would prove to be Matt Nathanson’s breakthrough, but it wasn’t his first record. On the contrary, in Nathanson’s catalog, Some Mad Hope holds the status of being the sixth LP. He’d moved the needle slightly in the past. His cover of the James hit “Laid” opened American Wedding, the final film in the initial American Pie trilogy, and his fifth album, 2003’s Beneath the Fireworks (produced by future Springsteen collaborator Ron Aniello) spawned reasonably well-known tracks like “I Saw” and “Curve of the Earth.” But until this record, Nathanson tended to be known as an artist who put on a fantastic live show, but could never quite translate the energy and fun of his concerts into compelling studio records.
Will Hoge almost got the dream.
In 2015, the independent Nashville-based recording artist seemed poised to win the country music lottery. He and his band had been picked by a major radio conglomerate as a spotlight artist, to be introduced on a mass scale to radio listeners nationwide. Looking back now, Hoge says the slot was virtually a guarantee of a top 10 record in the country music sphere. “This is exactly what the program is for,” the radio group told him and his band: spotlighting new artists or independent acts and helping them find a home in the infamously commercialized world of country radio.
For Hoge, being picked as a next big thing was the realization of a long-held dream. He’d released his first record—as part of the band Spoonful—in 1997, before going solo with 2001’s Carousel. What followed was a series of well-liked and respected records that melded country, southern rock, and heartland rock into something that sounded like a twangier Springsteen. For 2003’s Blackbird on a Lonely Wire, Hoge got scooped up by Atlantic Records, but the album failed to take off and it was back to the independent musician game after that.
Still, Hoge kept trucking and was eventually rewarded for his persistence. In 2012, Eli Young Band recorded a version of “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” a song from Hoge’s 2009 record The Wreckage. The song was the opening track and second single from Eli Young Band’s Life at Best album, and it ultimately reached number one on the Billboard country chart. Suddenly armed with a number one song to his name, Hoge landed his 2013 track “Strong” in a widely syndicated ad campaign for Chevrolet Silverado. The song charted modestly on country radio, but it was enough to convince Hoge that if he really tried to play the game, he might just be able to make some magic happen.
Earlier this year, when Canadian country singer Colter Wall released his self-titled debut record, it felt like someone had caught lightning in a bottle. How was it possible that this young, 21-year-old kid could produce the kind of booming, haunting baritone voice he sang with? How could he get closer to sounding like Johnny Cash than anyone in Nashville, when he’d only been seven years old when Cash passed away? It felt like Wall had the kind of once-in-a-generation voice that was going to make him a country music legend. And then you got to the penultimate track, a take on the old German folk song “Fraulein,” and heard another breathtaking voice stealing the show.
That voice belonged to Tyler Childers, an unheralded (at least until now) singer/songwriter hailing from the state of Kentucky. Like Wall, Childers is young. He’s 26 now and has been touring the southern and midwestern United States since he was 20. But Childers doesn’t have Wall’s cavernous baritone voice. Instead, he’s got a gritty, versatile tenor, equally adept at selling loud honky tonk rave-ups and tender, lovelorn ballads. It begs the question: what kind of deals with the devil did these two young troubadours have to strike to get such distinctive instruments so early in their lives? And if country music has these kinds of remarkable young talents hiding around the fringes, then why the hell are we putting up with nothing vocalists like Jason Aldean and Thomas Rhett?
When Arcade Fire won the Album of the Year Grammy for The Suburbs, it felt like the beginning of something. Six years on from Funeral, the record that made the band torchbearers of the critically acclaimed indie rock scene, here they were, finally being recognized on the big stage. The records they beat—pop juggernauts from Katy Perry, Eminem, Lady Gaga, and Lady Antebellum—were all more indicative of what the radio sounded like in 2010. But Arcade Fire’s victory showed that, maybe, the pop world was finally ready to embrace something darker and more nuanced. Maybe they were ready to let a rock band back into the fold.
Looking back now, the Grammy win feels more like the end of something. Future Grammy winners didn’t sound or look much like Arcade Fire. Neither did radio stars. Instead, on 2013’s Reflektor, Arcade Fire started looking (and sounding) a lot like the pop insiders. Just like most of the other marquee acts that released albums that year—Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake (x2), Jay-Z, Eminem, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga—Arcade Fire made it clear that they were going for a capital-B Blockbuster. The rollout was excessive and overblown; the album was long and ambitious; the hype stretched on for months. And the songs…well, they didn’t have that much to offer, at the end of the deep, deep rabbit hole that Arcade Fire dug for fans. Writing for Grantland, Steven Hyden called 2013 “The Year Music Failed to Blockbust.” He wasn’t wrong, and Arcade Fire was at the center of it.
The first six months of 2017 have probably brought more than enough albums to fill a year-end list. Alas, it’s only mid-year, which leaves us with the task of distilling everything we’ve heard so far into quick, concise top 10 lists. Rather than try to define the overarching themes of the year, we’d rather just let the albums we love speak for themselves. Below, you will find both our combined staff top 10, as well as individual lists from our contributors and moderators. Here’s hoping you find something new to love.
Note: You can share your own list in our music forum.
“Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know.” So Jason Isbell proclaims in the middle of “Hope the High Road,” the resilient lead single from his brand new LP, The Nashville Sound. It’s something of a mission statement for the record, which is very much informed by 2016’s shit storm of political division and deep-seated anger. However, that lyric only gains its resonance from the line that follows it: “But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch, I’ll meet you up here on the road.” Being pissed off and dwelling on everything that went wrong last year might feel good, but it isn’t productive. Looking forward and striving to do better and be better is what’s necessary to effect change.
As a lead single, “Hope the High Road” is not indicative of what this album sounds like. It’s bright and anthemic where much of the record is dark and jagged, opting for Springsteen-style uplift instead of following the record’s lead of addressing all those nagging thoughts that you don’t want to talk about at parties. However, the message of the song—that maybe it’s a good idea to take a look inward instead of casting blame for once—is what gives the LP its beating heart. The Nashville Sound is the third masterpiece in a row from Isbell, and it gets there by never giving easy answers to the hard questions.
Southern rock often goes overlooked in mainstream or music criticism circles, which is why bands like The Steel Woods will probably never have the widespread followings they deserve. Bands of this ilk either get lumped in with country (and subsequently written off by people who don’t like country) or compared endlessly to Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band, as if no southern rock bands have existed since. But the past few years have been nothing but healthy for southern rock, bringing great albums from new artists (A Thousand Horses, Whiskey Myers, Cadillac Three, Blackberry Smoke) and old standbys alike (the ever-reliable Drive By Truckers). Even Chris Stapleton has more than a little bit of the southern rock sound in his DNA.
The Steel Woods add their name to that list with their stellar debut album, the recently-released Straw in the Wind. Blending influences from half a dozen genres—including blues, gospel, down-home country, rock ‘n’ roll, and even a little dash of metal—The Steel Woods sound more seasoned, versatile, and assured on this sprawling 13-song collection than you would normally expect from a debut act. (Though they do have a previous four-song EP under their belt.) The band’s wheelhouse is dark, atmospheric rock ‘n’ roll, like the slow-burning opener “Axe” or the gospel-tinged “Let the Rain Come Down,” a song that appeared in a more acoustic-oriented arrangement on last year’s debut album from singer/songwriter Brent Cobb. Foreboding and thrilling, these songs carry an almost apocalyptic glint to them, which makes for a hell of a lot of fun.
A former punk, hardcore, and metalcore singer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, John Moreland made one of the greatest and most pervasively sad country records of the decade so far with 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat. “I’m so damn good at sorrow,” he sang in one of the LP’s key tracks, and he was right. Most of the songs were driven by little more than acoustic guitar and voice, and the lyrics were so heavy and despairing that the record was tough to listen to more than once in a multi-day span. If you were hurting for just about any reason, though, that album could be your best friend.
No artist has ever had a success story quite like that of Chris Stapleton. Two years ago this week, Stapleton released his debut album, a 14-track collection of old school country, blues, southern rock, and soul called Traveller. The album didn’t arrive without buzz: Stapleton was one of the most dependable songwriters in Nashville, a guy with (at the time) four number one country hits to his name. He also made his record with Dave Cobb, the producer who had helped Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson craft breakthrough, critically-beloved albums the two years previous. The result was a number 14 debut on the Billboard 200 with 27,000 copies sold; not remarkable, but not bad for a debut artist, either.
What the hell, John?
Let’s journey back for a moment to New Year’s Day, when John Mayer told the world via his Instagram account that his new album, The Search for Everything, would be coming in four-song waves “every month.” Mayer never explicitly said that he would be releasing 48 songs in 2017, but he definitely implied it. Strongly.
What he actually did was release two four-song waves—in January and February, respectively—and then announce a full-length album that would include all those songs, plus a few more. At this point, no one is sure whether Mayer will be continuing with the waves for the rest of the year or not. I don’t think Mayer even knows. On the one hand, CD versions of the new album label it “Vol. 1.” On the other hand, Mayer tweeted on release day: “And that ends an era: August ’14-April ’17.” Since The Search for Everything is an album about Mayer’s breakup with Katy Perry, and since the album is very much a “complete thought” on its own, there seems to be little reason that Mayer would continue this release cycle in any fashion.
Third Eye Blind’s self-titled is simultaneously one of the most joyful albums I’ve ever heard and one of the most heartbreaking. The first half of the record is stacked with infectiously catchy pop-rock songs—most of which became hit singles. The latter half is more jagged and mid-tempo, with songs that sound noticeably darker and more subdued. Half the songs wouldn’t sound out of place on a summertime party playlist. The other half are songs that ache with such profound loneliness that listening to them with a group of people almost seems sacrilegious. And, as is the trademark of frontman Stephen Jenkins, even some of the songs that sound happy are actually crushing.
Third Eye Blind is a much more complex record than I thought it was when I first heard it, and I’d reckon that something similar holds true for most people. Frankly, early on, it was easy to hear Third Eye Blind’s music as little more than catchy radio rock. In the summer of 1997, “Semi-Charmed Life” rode the infectiousness of its “doo doo doo” hook to the number one slot on Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 chart. At six years old, I thought it was the catchiest song I’d ever heard. At 26 years old, I still think it’s the catchiest song I’ve ever heard. There might not be a single song that makes me think more of summertime than that one.
Steve Moakler’s biggest claim to fame—at least at this particular moment in time—is writing the title track and fifth single from Dierks Bentley’s 2014 LP, Riser. That fact may just change with Steel Town, Moakler’s fourth full-length solo record and his most accomplished work yet. Stacked with radio-friendly numbers that meld Moakler’s smart, resonant songwriting with the hooks and lush instrumentation of a mainstream country record, Steel Town has the potential to make Moakler into this year’s breakout country star.
Steel Town is 11 songs long, but Moakler actually released the first half of the record a year ago. In a move that has become customary for Nashville up-and-comers, Moakler dropped a self-titled EP last spring that featured the first five tracks from this album. (Similar maneuvers have recently helped launch artists like Maren Morris, Brett Young, and William Michael Morgan toward chart success.) That EP was my favorite short-form release of 2016, pairing wistful, emotional tour de forces (“Steel Town,” which Moakler wrote about the town where he grew up) with breezy summertime hooks (the indelible “Suitcase”) and gorgeous dusky ballads (“Summer Without Her”).
When the world got blown apart on the morning of September 11th, 2001, it felt like nothing would ever be the same again. In a lot of ways, it wouldn’t. Even at 10 years old, I knew there was a sense of innocence and wonder to the world that was stolen the moment that first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. How could anything ever be okay again after something so terrible? Even as a child, I pondered this question.
For years after that day, I would read about the reactions to the tragedy. Shortly after I graduated from high school in 2009, I read a speech that Dr. Karl Paulnack of The Boston Conservatory gave to the parents of incoming students in September 2004. In the address, Paulnack reflected on his experience on the morning of September 12th, 2001, when he—a classical pianist by trade—went to sit down at his instrument to practice. It was part of his daily routine, but on that day, it felt wrong. “Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless,” Paulnack recalled. “What place has a musician in this moment in time?”
Ryan Adams made what was, to my ears, his best record ever with 2014’s self-titled effort. More diverse and consistent than Heartbreaker and less bloated than Gold, Love Is Hell, and Cold Roses, Ryan Adams was a tight, taut, and tense collection of songs that saw Adams dealing with the loss of his grandmother and the pressures of a troubled marriage. Two and a half years later, the once-prolific Adams returns with the proper follow-up to his self-titled record, and it’s the closest he’s ever come to making a sequel. Prisoner carries many of the sonic and lyrical hallmarks of its predecessor, from the reverb-heavy production to the clear influence of 1980s Springsteen and Petty records. “Do You Still Love Me,” the opener and lead single, even bears a strong resemblance to the last record’s first track, “Gimme Something Good.”
We’ve been giving Andrew McMahon a lot of love this week, all in honor of his brand new album, Zombies on Broadway. On Monday, we published an interview with him and yesterday, we reviewed the new record. Today, we’re attempting the impossible: distilling McMahon’s impressive 15-year career into one ultimate concert setlist.
For this playlist, I mostly adhered to the rules established last year in Craig Ismaili’s Ultimate Jimmy Eat World Setlist: 20 songs for the main set, two songs for the encore, and a mix of tunes that includes both hits and career-best songs. I did, however, dispense with Craig’s 80-minute rule, simply because that would mean burning one-eighth of the set on “Konstantine.”
Andrew McMahon is an artist who has had a very loyal and passionate following for a very long time. Starting with Something Corporate, which offered a piano-led twist on the emo/pop-punk trends of the early 2000s, McMahon has been regarded as a master of melody and a writer capable of churning out fiercely relatable songs. Suffice to say that BuzzFeed hit the nail on the head (for the first and last time) when it labeled “Konstantine” as the emo “Freebird.” When McMahon transitioned his career from Something Corporate into the poppier and more mature Jack’s Mannequin, it was a testament to his talent as a songwriter, his likability as a performer, and the strong personal resonance of his work that just about all of his fans were willing to go along for the ride.
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness will release their sophomore LP, Zombies on Broadway, later this week. I spoke with McMahon on the phone about the new record’s pop-leaning direction, his ever-evolving sound, the way family has defined his last few albums, and whether or not he’d ever consider writing a memoir. We also spoke briefly about next year’s 10-year anniversary of Jack’s Mannequin’s The Glass Passenger and whether or not fans can expect any special tours or reissues to mark the occasion.
“It’s a lifeless life, with no fixed address to give/But you’re not mine to die for anymore/So I must live.” On the list of the best lyrics of the decade so far, that one—the most climactic line from the Japandroids’ blistering, cathartic “The House That Heaven Built”—has to be near the top. To me, that line has always been a beautifully apt statement about growing up and moving on. I suppose you could read it as a lyric about a break up, but I prefer to see it as a vow to let go of the things that used to define your life and build new ones in their place.
In a way, that’s exactly what Japandroids are doing on Near to the Wild Heart of Life, their third full-length album and their first in nearly five years. Their last record, 2012’s Celebration Rock, was more appropriately titled than any other album released in the past seven years. Beginning and ending with fireworks, the album raged with pounding guitars, blitzkrieg drums, and shout-along choruses that could put anyone in a party mood. It was an album about being young, staying up all night, making memories with friends, and drinking way more than could feasibly be deemed “necessary.”
Last week, Jason highlighted some of his favorite songs of 2016 in the wake of Chorus.fm’s Top 30 Albums of the Year list. This week, I’m taking the reigns to share my own favorite songs from last year.
In the summer of 2015, when I put Chris Stapleton on the last-ever incarnation of AbsolutePunk.net’s Absolute 100—a feature dedicated to celebrating up-and-coming, under the radar artists—I asked a pair of questions that have since proved to be prophetic. The first was “If given the opportunity, how many of country music’s gun-for-hire songwriters could make better records than any of the artists they write for?” The second was “How many of them could make masterpieces?” More than I thought, apparently.
Since Stapleton’s breakout success, the songwriters seem to be taking back Nashville. 2016 brought major critical and/or commercial successes for Maren Morris (who had previously written for Kelly Clarkson and the TV show Nashville), Brandy Clark (who had previously written for Sheryl Crow, Miranda Lambert, and Toby Keith, not to mention a slew of co-writes with Kacey Musgraves), and Lori McKenna (who penned two of the biggest hits in modern country with Tim McGraw’s “Humble & Kind” and Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush”). Hopefully, these big successes will push Nashville labels to take chances on more of their top songsmiths. Who knows how many stars are waiting to be born in the liner notes of your favorite country records.