Eddie Ashworth, an associate professor in the School of Media Arts & Studies at Ohio University where he teaches courses in record production and music industry studies, recently shared his top albums of 2016 with WOUB in a series of year-end articles by WOUB staff and contributors. From his WOUB.org blog:
Hi there fellow record nerds! I tried to keep it down to 10 this year. It was pretty hard to limit it to that number, but I made a concerted effort at which, of course, I failed.
As a matter of principle, I had to disqualify albums that I had the privilege to make (such as Kiss Of The Universe by Qiet and Velvet Morning by The High Definitions) or by gifted musicians I have the good fortune to know (Homemade Vision by Angela Perley & The Howling Moons and Pearls Before Swine by Adam Torres are two examples) but they would be on this list as well if I didn’t!
My top 10 (or so):
1. Margaret Glaspy – Emotions and Math
Glaspy channels Elvis Costello and Joni Mitchell with this bracing collection of songs that are clever and painfully honest. I really love Glaspy’s nuanced yet muscular electric guitar work; along with her idiosyncratic and captivating voice, she creates a formidable vehicle for her tunes. Also, the production is noteworthy in that it doesn’t sound the least bit fussed over—raw takes honestly recorded and played. My favorite new artist to emerge this year.
2. Emitt Rhodes – Rainbow Ends
His voice may no longer have the high keening clarity of his early glory days, but his songs pack more of an emotional punch than ever before. The backing support from LA’s musical elite (Jon Brion, Roger Manning, Jr, Nelson Bragg, Nels Cline, Jason Faulkner, Probyn Gregory, Aimee Mann, etc.) is testament to the respect and influence Rhodes holds to this day. The result is one of the year’s most beautiful—if heartbreaking—ruminations of love and loss.
3. Diarrhea Planet – Turn To Gold
Less is usually more. And sometimes more is more, as is the case with this fantastic band and album. DP’s surfeit of guitar players allows for sweeping, majestic metal inflected sonic layering that serves the songs and creates a truly exhilarating musical experience.
4. White Denim – Stiff
Light-hearted and (at times) nonsensical fun. The band sounds more taught and frenetic than ever, providing a perfect foil for the impossibly catchy songs and vocals. This record is a whirlwind rollercoaster ride of energetic psych rock that doesn’t let up. Perfect for parties and festive gatherings.
5. Robbie Fulks – Upland Stories
An instant classic. After a long and illustrious career that has seen forays into honky tonk, Bakersfield country, and rockabilly, Fulks has written a mature collection of songs that lovingly document the life and hard times of rural Americana. Sounding like some sort of dream collaboration between Willie Nelson, Willis Alan Ramsey, and Woody Guthrie, Upland Stories breathes new life into the kind of narrative songwriting that used to be country music’s forte. Fulks brings it all back with this great album.
6. Wilco – Schmilco
Given the ongoing excellence of their live performances and recorded output, it’s easy to take this band for granted. The predominantly acoustic flip side to last year’s abrasive yet earworm-laden Star Wars (reportedly recorded concurrently with this release), Schmilco offers further proof that Jeff Tweedy and his world class band are at the very peak of their impressive powers. This record would have fit comfortably between Cat Stevens and Harry Nilsson on a mid 70’s FM radio playlist. (On that note, I am looking forward to Son of Schmilco.)
7. Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
Donald Glover is just way too talented. The writer/actor/musician (whose prior rap-centric efforts were solid if not groundbreaking) surprised many with this adventurous and tuneful album of actual songs that evokes Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic, even Steely Dan, along with a multitude of other influences. Experimental and uplifting modern sweet soul music.
8. The Minus 5 – Of Monkees And Men
I loved The Monkees surprisingly great Adam Schlesinger-produced Good Times (a fitting capstone to 50 years in the business), but I loved this homage to the Pre-Fab Four even more. What could have been a slapdash geek fest is instead a truly affecting tribute to not only the members of the band, but to the folks who wrote their songs, the roadies who schlepped their gear, the actors who performed in their comedy series, and a few oddballs that have no relation to either the band or the show. I know it all sounds kind of ridiculous but Scott McCaughey’s great tunes and support from the likes of Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Jim Babjak, Laura Gibson, and Dennis Diken make this record not only a great listen but also a knowing reflection on the fickle nature of fame.
9. Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like A Levee
I’ve always loved MC Taylor’s tunes, and he and his musical collaborators find the sweet spot on this one. The songs brim with a quiet confidence and easy tunefulness, the lyrics are timely and universal, and the arrangements perfectly complement the wonderful material.
10. Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster – Constant Stranger
I started listening to this album on a road trip to North Carolina in November, and it hasn’t gone far away since then. As musically spare as the album’s minimalist cover art, Kinkel-Schuster’s solo songs are reminiscent of the quieter moments on records his band (Water Liars) have made, but even more hushed and moody. Some albums just speak to your soul, and this one continues to speak to mine.
And, of course, I was deeply moved like so many by the tragic yet triumphant bookends to this rather unpleasant year:
11 and 12: Blackstar by David Bowie and You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen.
Two towering albums that stand up to the best of their (or anybody’s) careers. I found it inspiring that both artists, right up to the very end, made essential music that speaks to both the strength and fragility of our brief transits on this earth.
Other records I loved in 2016:
Drive By Truckers – American Band
Beyoncé – Lemonade
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Okkervil River – Away
Dawes – We’re All Gonna Die
The Struts – Everybody Wants
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Regina Spektor – Remember Us To Life
Shovels & Rope – Little Seeds
Shone Knife – Adventure
Nels Cline – Lovers
David Crosby – Lighthouse
Butch Walker – Stay Gold
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
The Monkees – Good Times
Frank Ocean – Bleach
Eddie Ashworth is an associate professor at Ohio University’s School of Media Arts and Studies within the Scripps College of Communication. He has mixed, recorded and produced a vast number of albums and singles over the course of his 20 year-plus career within the music industry, working with artists such as Sublime, Tommy Shaw, Dokken and many more.