Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2016 incredible. Today, the hosts of WXPN’s Sleepy Hollow – Julian Booker, Keith Kelleher and Chuck Elliot – share their favorite quiet songs of 2016
We all know that 2016 was a difficult year for music fans. It will forever be remembered as the year we lost David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen, among many others. But we can be thankful that it also yielded a surplus of excellent recordings (two of which were released by Bowie and Cohen themselves). From Allen Toussaint’s somber swan song American Tunes and undeniably consistent releases from David Crosby and Brian Eno to unexpected collaborations between Neko Case, k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs, Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop, and Billy Bragg and Joe Henry to potentially career-defining albums from young artists like Angel Olsen and Michael Kiwanuka, this year had a lot for which to be thankful. Take a listen to this Spotify playlist featuring all three of our hosts’ favorite songs of the year, and check out our take on a few of the releases that we thought deserved particular attention below. Enjoy! -JB.
Angel Olsen — “Those Were the Days” (My Woman; Jagjaguwar)
Angel Olsen’s 2014 breakthrough, her third solo release entitled Burn Your Fire for No Witness, was a fully-formed expedition through the artist’s multiple musical personalities, with the listener finding him or herself dreaming along to the quiet indie-folk of “White Fire” and “Iota” before being shaken awake by songs like “Forgiven/Forgotten” or “Stars,” rockers that achieved the not-so-simple task of pulling themselves back just before falling off the edge. On her follow-up, this year’s MY WOMAN, Olsen streamlines her sound while occasionally stretching out on compositions that, in the case of “Sister” and “Woman,” inch towards the eight-minute mark. And while the folk and rock touchstones of her past are certainly present here, so is a decidedly vintage sheen of production courtesy of Justin Raisen, that filters Olsen’s remarkable songwriting and vocal talents through the lens of classic ’60s pop. This only adds to the tension so frequently felt in her music, a tension that aides in making each and every song over her last two albums feel essential to each work as a whole. But on “Those Were the Days,” Olsen steps back, offering tender reflection when she sings:
Do you remember the way that it used to be?
I waited for you
And you kept on searching with me
Wanting to see each other all of the time
Those were the days
Nothing to lose and nothing to find
“Will you ever know the same love that I’ve known?” Olsen asks over and over again, but ultimately returns to the same quiet contemplation of the song’s opening verse. With a bed of gently strummed guitars and a deep Fender Rhodes behind her, Olsen may not conjure the immediacy of the album’s excellent first single “Shut Up Kiss Me,” but, this song, in its patience, grace, and eloquence creates the finest moment on her most important work yet.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — “Distant Sky” (Skeleton Tree; Bad Seeds Ltd.)
Filled with the sadness of the tragic death of his son Arthur, Nick Cave’s latest is an elegy to the pain of continuing on and the struggles that doing so encompasses. This chilling but beautiful track from “Skeleton Tree,” with help from vocalist Else Torp, contains all the nuance and compassion that such a devastating blow from life gives. A hard but overall hopeful experience. -KK.
David Crosby — “Things We Do for Love” (Lighthouse; Groundup Music)
For fans of David Crosby, the last two years have been a virtual monsoon of new material. Before 2014’s very fine, Croz, the singer/songwriter/twitter hero hadn’t released an original album since 1993’s uneven Thousand Roads. For Lighthouse, his fifth official studio release, Crosby enlisted the immensely talented Michael League (of prog/jazz saviors Snarky Puppy) as producer, and for his part, League reportedly used Crosby’s 1971 cult classic, If I Could Only Remember My Name, as a jumping off point. This was wise, for of all the CSNY-related solo releases (Stephen Stills’ self-titled album, Graham Nash’s Songs for Beginners, and Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, all excellent in their own right), Crosby’s drug-induced fever dream of a record may be the most interesting and personal. But unlike that album’s more sprawling sections (such as the eight minute “Cowboy Song”) and League’s own, often complicated, work with Snarky Puppy, the duo keep most of Lighthouse relatively concise, supplanting those qualities with streamlined, moody production and arrangements that bring out the strength in the compositions, all of which were written or co-written by Crosby himself (with help from League, Marc Cohn, and Becca Stevens).
On “Things We Do for Love,” which made it into Chuck Elliot’s Top 10 of the year, Crosby, accompanied by sparse guitars, bass and ethereal backing vocals, sings:
At first its just fine
But love is long
A little each day
You build it that way
It’s being around
Another set of hands
It’s not what you want
It’s only that you will
Kindle the flame
These are the things we do for love.
And though there is undoubtedly a sense of melancholy and hard realism in Crosby’s words, the singer sounds comfortable and at peace throughout, only to end with the question: “where do you stand?” And so age has not taken the uncertainty and tension that has often informed Crosby’s music away, but it also has not diminished his insight, allowing for Lighthouse to be a worthy companion to Crosby’s crowning solo achievement 45 years later. -JB.
Norah Jones-“Peace” (Day Breaks; Blue Note)
A perfect voice for Sleepy Hollow, Norah Jones goes back to the sound that started her career: that of the jazz chanteuse. The strength of her phrasing and her piano are at peak powers here, as she covers a classic from Horace Silver that brings her talents to the forefront. After her dalliance with pop over the course of her last few albums, Day Breaks is a welcome return to an old friend and her muse.
Andy Shauf — “To You” (The Party; ANTI-)
The Party is a concept album about a party…more specifically, it is a concept album about all of those people at a party who were reluctant to go to begin with, and most definitely reluctant to ever go to another one after they leave. Its an idea that could easily have failed–but anyone who listened to 2015’s The Bearer of Bad News (a re-issue following a small independent release in 2012), knew that Shauf was not your ordinary songwriter, and his attention to character development throughout The Party, paired with his remarkable sense of melody and arrangement resulted in one of the year’s best albums. From the first note of “The Magician,” through the final whispers of “Martha Sways,” Shauf fills his songs with more lyrical empathy, lush orchestration, impeccably placed guitar and piano lines, and memorable hooks than almost any record in recent memory. All of these layers meet their climax on the album’s stunning centerpiece, “To You,” a song written from the perspective of a young woman trying to tell a friend her true feelings only to be rejected and humiliated in the process. Shauf’s insistence on only giving the listener her side of the story forces us to hang on her every word–we feel the conversation unfold from its innocent beginning:
Jimmy, can we talk a minute?
I’ve got some things I need to get off of my chest…
…it’s just that sometimes when I’m by your side
it feels so right
it feels like nothing could go wrong
does it ever feel like that to you?
And wince at its heartbreaking end:
Get over yourself
I’m not in love with you
it just came out all wrong
yeah, tell the guys and laugh it up
why am I even surprised
that it never
feels like that to you?
Shauf’s nearly-spoken vocal delivery only makes the lyrics more affecting atop his now trademark woodwinds and Colin Nealis’ strings, and if you were still skeptical of Shauf’s genius, consider the fact that the album was recorded, produced, and virtually all of its instruments played, by Shauf himself. The magician, indeed.
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