To call this yearly project my “Top Album Project” is now misleading. Starting with 2015 the ranking was no longer based off of iTunes play counts. It’s now based entirely on albums that I want to play a song from, especially ones that won’t take very long to learn. This would not be an accurate list of my favorite albums of the year, nor is it a list of the albums I listened to the most. It’s missing 2016 releases from Opeth, Megadeth, and Metallica, just to name a few. I sat with the Metallica albums for quite a while and it just never made a great solo piano piece.
But alas, I am keeping the project alive. Like 2015 it’s a list of 30 albums that were released in the calendar year that I liked, and I was inspired to learn a song or two from each on the piano. So I’m taking the “Top” off of the project. It’s now my “Album Project”, not my “Top Album Project”. Advertisers, sponsors, and media outlets take note. The order is completely arbitrary, and is just the order in which I remembered what album I recorded.
1) The Neal Morse Band “The Similitude of a Dream”
It’s dangerous for anyone to say that their current or upcoming album is their best. It can only set expectations too high. The only way it works is if the back catalog is full of clunkers. For Neal Morse, that certainly isn’t the case and I wish Neal and Mike Portnoy had let us make up our minds after the album was released.
It’s a good album, but it’s a Neal Morse album. The Grand Experiment was more of a leap forward than this one, which continues with the ‘band’ theme.
2) Kristen Scott Benson “Stringworks”
Kristen and her bluegrass band The Grascals were one of the bigger names for the 2017 Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. As I wandered the halls I saw her sitting alone at the artist’s table. I’m not one to bother the talent in general, but I went up to her and said I liked her solo record, especially her cover of Cheryl Wheeler’s “When Fall Comes to New England”. She smiled and said that The Grascals should do the song “up here”. I smiled too, and walked away, but thought to myself “in Framingham we call Framingham ‘here’, not ‘up here'”. I don’t know why I thought that.
3) Lori McKenna “The Bird & The Rifle”
Lori now does the best imitation of her former self. She sings of heartache but her Instagram is full of happy pictures of her kids and husband. With such access to these artist’s personal life it’s becoming harder to separate the artist’s voice and their actual life. I forgive Lori though, and will do my best to separate the two. I do miss the authenticity of the Kitchen Tapes though.
4) Rick Springfield “Rocket Science”
The great Rick Springfield distraction of 2016 had me listening to more Rick Springfield than expected. I don’t think I’ve listened to any Rick Springfield since I wrote the entry linked in the previous sentence.
5) Sierra Hull “Weighted Mind”
Anyone who says they don’t want a Sierra Hull in their back pocket is lying. To say she is cute as a button greatly over-exaggerates the cuteness of a buttons (they are not cute).
I remember seeing Sierra Hull on MySpace during its height in popularity (2005???). She was a young teenager commenting with the bigger players in the mandolin world at the time. I had no idea who she was, but I saw her name everywhere on my wall (or whatever you called MySpace). To me, it was as if she was the little sister of the mandolin community that just wanted to be included.
That childish perception of Sierra Hull was completely changed after a few months with “Weighted Mind”. It took many listens to fully appreciate, as most good music does.
6) The O’Connor Band “Coming Home”
Mr. O’Connor is a lucky man and deserves the praises he and his band have received for this album. They are a power foursome capable of blending traditional fiddle tunes with more modern (Alison Krauss-esque) country music. Jerusalem Ridge is an old Bill Monroe tune, but I will always think of it as a Mark O’Connor tune first.
7) Richard Barone “Sorrows & Promises: Greenwich Village in the 1960s”
I feel like someone should have told me about these songs. I thought I was fairly well versed in popular music from the past 60 years. This album proved that there are a lot of gems out there from my parent’s youth still waiting for me to uncover.
What made it even better was that it was largely a duet album. The song “Close The Door Lightly When You Go” with Allison Moorer was a highlight.
8) Shovels & Rope “Little Seeds”
I liked last year’s Busted Jukebox cover album by Shovels & Rope, but I was skeptical on whether I liked the band Shovels & Rope as a whole. I thought that maybe they had lured me in with their creative covers and interesting guests, and would make me stick around for their unique alt-country sound that, to me, can sometimes sound a bit too forcibly indie for the sake of sounding alternative to something that sounds better.
But alas, my skepticism was misplaced. This album made me realize that I like Shovels & Rope as a band and I went back to their earlier releases. All brilliant.
The song “BWYR” has a fine message about tolerance, but as a song I found myself skipping it. It reminded me of the Tori Amos tune “Me and a Gun”. It’s powerful, but doesn’t demand repeated listens and otherwise interrupts the flow of an album.
I’m typically not a lyrics connoisseur, but there are times when lyrics fit just right and give me chills when paired well melodically.”Little Seeds” has a bunch those moments.
Sometimes it’s aided by a local reference…
‘Cause that loud rock and roll was too much to bear
For the soft-hearted poets down in Harvard Square
Or it goes slightly over my head on casual listens…
‘Cause you’ve got a lot of heart, but your moves are enigmatic
If you’re acting too erratic it’s my semi-automatic response
Lori McKenna has an old album called “The Kitchen Tapes”. The song “Afternoons” has an unnamed bonus track that truly lives up to the album’s name. Lori sits in a kitchen, hits record and screams to her kids to be quiet in her best Boston accent. There’s something authentic about it that makes me smile. I’m sure it was left in intentionally to produce that emotion, but I also believe that it wasn’t staged.
Shovels & Rope do the same thing with three bonus tracks labeled “Kitchen Demos”. During “St. Anne’s Parade (Kitchen Demo)” they tell their kid (I assume) to shush, but in a sweet way. I don’t know what it is about them, but there’s something chillingly intimate to me about Kitchen Demos with audible banter.
9) Clair Lynch “North by South”
Clair Lynch can often blend into the line-up of a bluegrass festival, but whenever she’s matched with Alison Brown it’s genius. Claire is great, but it’s her guests that make this album shine.
10) Kansas “The Prelude Implicit”
I loved Kansas’ 2000 release “Somewhere to Elsewhere” which contained most of the original and classic Kansas line-up. 2016’s “The Prelude Implicit” contained only 2 original members, but I think I liked it nearly as much.
The intro to “The Voyage of Eight Eighteen” sounds like it could of been an unreleased track from Masque.
I can’t hear “The Unsung Heroes” without thinking of Don Henley’s version of “Please Come Home For Christmas”. To me, it’s the only weak part of the album. Even the unexpected covers of “Home on the Range” and “Oh Shenandoah” were more interesting to me.