In what was an excellent year for pop songwriting, tunesmiths spent lots of energy working out what to ponder privately, what to imply with a glance, and what to proclaim publically. Courtney Barnett, the year’s breakout arrival, devotes much of her album to calibrating her terms of engagement in her work and love life – she won’t be put on a pedestal, but doesn’t mind oversharing assorted daydreams and other minutae. Ryan Adams found the introspective side of Taylor Swift; Jeff Tweedy discovered new ways to express vulnerability. We got to hear Bob Dylan chasing alternative musical platforms for some of his most trenchant songs. Alabama Shakes arrived at a maelstrom of sound to amplify the tension embedded in frontwoman Brittany Howard’s intense argument-in-progress lyrics (which were even more sharply rendered on her side project Thunderbitch.) The interior “life of the mind” stuff defined Joanna Newsome’s austere and hypnotic Divers and governed deep, album-length explorations of unsettling mood from Father John Misty and Lana Del Rey. While we’re at it, the sterling moments of the year’s most acclaimed album, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, held rhymes about the challenges of defining the self in an environment defined by indifference and information overload.
There was plenty of storytelling from instrumentalists as well. Those who think we’ve heard every possible approach to the electric guitar should seek out the first record in 15 years from DJ/producer St. Germain – which turns on the jaw-droppingly inventive contributions of Malian guitarist Guimba Kouyate. And also World’s Fair, the sly, meditative solo work from Julian Lage. Then, to be reminded just how malleable a song can be, check Brad Mehldau’s lush Ten Years Solo Live, which includes transfixing live explorations of popular songs and rock evergreens, including an epic expansion of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”
In no particular order….
Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color
The Arcs: Yours, Dreamily
Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free
Julian Lage: World’s Fair
Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly
Brad Mehldau: Ten Years Solo Live
Joanna Newsome: Divers
St. Germain: St. Germain
Tame Impala: Currents
Wilco: Star Wars
AND A FEW MORE…
Ibeyi: Ibeyi; The Bad Plus Joshua Redman; Dan Mangan: Club Meds; Lana Del Rey: Honeymoon; Original Broadway Cast Recording: Hamilton; Ryan Adams: 1989; The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Madness; Bob Dylan: The Cutting Edge (Bootleg Series Vol. 12); Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear; Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit; Weather Report: The Legendary Live Tapes.