By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio
(Originally posted 01.03.17)
2016 was a terrific year for melodic pop music from both new and heritage artists, perhaps the best in recent memory. My list of 28 Favorite Records of the Year from 27 artists–The Stars of 2016–is presented below in random order.
It has long been my view that ranking entries on best-of-the-year lists is an impossible task, at least for me. If I made such a list on Monday, would the number nine entry still be in that slot on Tuesday? Perhaps not. Sometimes, I fear, agonizing over a particular placement would be akin to splitting hairs and not particularly a worthwhile enterprise. So, I’ll go with I like these a lot instead.
Here are my Favorite Records of the Year–The Stars of 2016–in no specific order. All are more than worthy of your time, and all should be added to your core collection of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe.
And now, on with the show…
The Stars of 2016
Bob Lind | Magellan Was Wrong Pop bard Bob Lind’s latest is a typically heartfelt collection of songs that deliver his always magical one-two punch: emotional lyrics and beautiful melodies, brought to life with stellar arrangements and production, much of it supplied in grand fashion on this album by the Spongetones’ Jamie Hoover. Gorgeous soundscapes abound, such as the romantic, catchy “From the Road,” awash with poppy background harmonies from Hoover and perceptive, picturesque lyrics from Lind (“In moments others call mundane/My soul is warming by your flame/Turning just like a sailor to the harbor/And I will carry back my songs and tales/Of calms and gales/And sing and tell them all/To you”), and Lind’s emotional cover of Tom Paxton’s “Bottle of Wine.”
Where to Get It: Amazon
The Legal Matters | Conrad With this album, the Legal Matters have set a new standard for vocal harmonies in melodic pop music. Andy Reed, Chris Richards, and Keith Klingensmith are the players, and their human voices are their instruments. The songs are sweetly realized, from the opener “Anything,” not the first track on this album tipping its hat to the much-loved Beach Boys vocal vibe, to the upbeat, single-worthy “Short Term Memory,” which tips its drumsticks to Ringo Starr in a delightful fill and puts forth some top-notch electric guitar playing. To listen to this album is a thrilling experience.
The Weeklings | Studio 2 The beat-betrothed, Beatlesque foursome from New Jersey, steeped in the Fab tradition and nom de plumed in the spirit of all that started off holy in Liverpool’s Cavern Club a fair number of years ago, follows up their self-titled long player, affectionately known as Monophonic, with a sterling 12-song set composed of eight superlative originals and four rare John Lennon and Paul McCartney songs not given away to other artists. Recording in Abbey Road’s hallowed Studio 2, where the Beatles made their astounding magic, Glen Burtnik, Bob Burger, John Merjave and Joe Bellia, aka Lefty, Zeek, Rocky and Smokestack, respectively, make considerable Merseyside hay with delightfully brisk and catchy songs steeped in the effervescent spirit of the Fab Four. A splendid time, to be sure.
Caper Clowns | The Buca Bus Delicious pure pop from Odense, Denmark delights with a dozen beautifully written and performed pearls. Lovely melodies and vocal harmonies are always present, particularly on instant classics such as the should-be-hit-bound earworm “A Tale of Romance and Magnetic Trains” and the gorgeous ballad “Lizard Heart.” Debut of the year? Most certainly.
Kenny Herbert | Forever and Beyond A gorgeous, romantic song cycle inspired by Caroline, the love of his life, Forever and Beyond is Herbert’s melodically-charged survey of the power of true love. The 14 songs on offer, encompassing 1930s, 1950s and modern melodic pop vibes, are tremendously affecting, beautifully drawn snapshots of a happy existence. The pretty “Queensferry Girl” and the catchy, McCartney-esque pop song “It’s All Good” shine among a rich collection of gems.
Nick Piunti | Trust Your Instincts Guitars, bass, drums, powerful vocals, and a whole lot of moxie power the pop on Nick’s latest, high-energy collection. These songs make heads turn and hearts embrace its many charms. “One Hit Wonder” is the big, splashy, pure pop hit here, a clear winner on an album full of winners.
Gleeson | Curse My Lucky Stars Austin, Texas band Gleeson have made their White Album, a sparkling collection of songs varied in approach and tone that makes a case for melodic pop being the genre of the moment. Encompassing beautiful balladry, art-pop, rock and retro charm, Curse My Lucky Stars is a marvel.
Where to Get It: Bandcamp
Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones | Little Windows A true, modern classic bathed in retro charm, Little Windows’ rewards are many. There is a decidedly romantic notion at play here, one that slips in and out of hand holding echoes of the Everly Brothers at Cadence, Roy Orbison, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Buck Owens and a thousand other country-pop artists and their golden recordings. These lovely, heartfelt songs, brought to life by two of pop music’s finest vocalists, make up an album that is like a bright lighthouse shining across the sea, drawing you in.
Ray Paul | Whimsicality Thirty-six years after the release of Ray Paul and RPM’s album Go Time, the artist is once again regaling listeners with enticing tales set to everyone’s favorite power pop beat. A delicious mix of originals and well-chosen covers, such as the Grass Roots’ “Temptation Eyes” and Paul McCartney’s “Oh Woman, Oh Why,” meets wonderfully-realized originals like the dynamic “A Fool Without Your Love” and McCartney-esque “Jeannie.” With Ray’s gorgeous melodies and strong vocals out front, this is a treat from first note to last.
Myrtle Park’s Fishing Club | Benches A monumentally towering testament to melodic and harmonic excellence, Benches is a delight from start to finish. There is nothing quite like Kate Stephenson’s take on melodic pop music, just as there is nothing like her soaring imagination, and her ability to express all manner of emotion and make the listener feel. Working in concert with musical partner John Steel, Kate delivers wondrous songs (and three-dimensional vocal harmony stacks) like “Somebody Called Me an Onion,” a smile-inducing, upbeat, energetic pop number with faux-reggae shadings about peeling back the layers to reveal the full, human package of emotion; and the a cappella wonder “Silent Letter,” a tune about inner beauty and the sanctity of thought that doesn’t always have to be laid bare. For those of you keeping score, this is the second Myrtle Park’s Fishing Club album to wear our Favorite Records of the Year mantle. As it should be.
The Nines | Alejandro’s Visions Rolling and then filtering the influence of the music of writers such as George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart into a mix peppered with the harmony styles of the Beach Boys, the Four Freshmen and even doo-wop, and then topping the resulting flow with his love of artists such as the Electric Light Orchestra and XTC, Steve Eggers has delivered a harmony- and melody-drenched soundtrack to an imaginary film, somewhat of a sequel to the last Nines album, Night Surfer and the Cassette Kids. Standout tracks include the beautiful, bittersweet, old-fashioned “When Our Love Was in Bloom,” stacked deep with gorgeous harmonies and an irresistible melody; and the early rock and roll/pop hybrid “Operator (Coming Home to You),” which sports a meaty, catchy, percussive piano riff, opens with an aural allusion to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and lays out a delectable Jeff Lynne-ish bridge that will make you smile. Alejandro’s Visions is Eggers’ best and most assured work yet, an immensely satisfying collection that belongs in every melodic pop music fan’s collection.
Seth Swirsky | Circles and Squares Proving that a creative, heartfelt approach to making music will yield magic almost every time, Seth Swirsky has crafted a collection of songs that draws on all of his strengths, and perhaps incorporates a couple of new ones. Moreover, these songs reveal the truth about all of our lives, right from the first track, “Shine,” his statement of purpose, the one that sets the stage for what comes next. And what comes next is winner after winner, such as the lovely confessional and autobiographical “I Don’t Have Anything (If I Don’t Have You),” in which the narrator allows that life means nothing at all without the proverbial “one”: “I’ve got some baseballs/That are pretty rare/Got a swimming pool/And a fast car/But I don’t care/’Cause I don’t have anything if I don’t have you…I’ve got gold records/Hanging on my wall/But without your love/Baby you can have ’em all…” This 16 song collection is the latest expression of craft from one of pop music’s most important artists.
Lucy Wainwright Roche and Suzzy Roche | Mud and Apples A sparkling duo release from Suzzy Roche and her daughter, Lucy Wainwright Roche. Warm harmonies, clever songwriting and the inclusion of beautifully-sung covers such as Paul Simon’s “Bleecker Street” and the Cascades’ “Rhythm of the Rain” push this 11 track masterpiece into hall-of-fame territory. Roches fans will be charmed, and so will everyone else. Surely one of this year’s top expressions of musical joy.
Where to Get It: Bandcamp
The Monkees | Good Times! Good Times! is a classic-sounding Monkees album that happens to have been released 50 years after Monkeemania began. A mix of recordings based on sessions produced during the group’s heyday and new songs written by top-flight, current songwriters of note, this is a fun listen from start to finish. A shining example of how good this album is: The perky, catchy “You Bring the Summer,” written by XTC’s Andy Partridge, fulfilling a childhood dream. A great album.
Mimi Betinis | Music Sounds and Basement Tapes Vol. 1 Pezband’s Betinis scores with two sterling releases in 2016 that are really two sides of a rather entertaining coin, so they both rate a spot in this Stars of 2016 feature. Music Sounds is a vivid, quite alive offering of melodic treasures. Its songs are wonderfully realized pop confections that hit the hooky bullseye, like “She Wants You,” which surreptitiously recalls the famed intro to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” in the intro, and “Summer Love,” a warm love letter and look back to a seasonal romance (that, perhaps unknowingly, taps the sound of 10cc member Eric Stewart’s guitar playing in the solo).
Basement Tapes Vol. 1 collects tracks that Mimi has been working on over the years, like “Ray of Light,” a melodic sweetness that sounds like an Andy Partridge outtake off of XTC’s Nonsuch album, and simply lovely covers (Paul McCartney’s song for Mary Hopkin, “Goodbye,” and the Hudson Brothers’ “So You Are a Star” are glorious). Saying that some heritage artists are only getting better as time passes by can sound like rather an empty assertion, but my, how that phrase does indeed fit snug as a bug, listening to Music Sounds and Basement Tapes Vol. 1.
Winterpills | Love Songs The numbers on Winterpills’ seventh album get under your skin; they become you in some celestial kind of way. The vocals of songwriter Philip Price and his wife, guitarist and keyboard player Flora Reed, are the collective glue that holds these proceedings together–the glue that gives them life. Consider “Wanderer White,” a rolling, rhythmic song about a fall from grace, in which Philip takes the lower notes and Flora the higher ones, and “Freeze Your Light,” which starts off as if in a church with a slight, ghostly choral singsong and becomes a folk-into-pop number with a delectable chorus buoyed by the same low-and-high vocals. The poppy bopper and should-be-hit-bound “Celia Johnson” turns the tables with Philip initially taking the high vocal part and Flora following closely. A trumpet and coronet serenade add to the song’s beauty; a lovely, echoed piano part comes in for a beautiful coda. A real treat.
Butch Young | Mercury Man Butch Young’s miraculous, hall-of-fame-worthy album is a modern classic by way of its dazzling array of 1970s-styled instant classic songs, peppered with a mix of Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson-esque magic. Every one of these Los Angeles-based artist’s songs is a clear winner, like the title track, “Persephone,” “One Foot In,” and “The Fools of May.” Awesome.
The Dowling Poole | One Hyde Park One Hyde Park, the sterling follow-up to the Dowling Poole’s Bleak Strategies, is a virtual tour de force and, if that weren’t enough, it’s an album influenced by sounds from across the pop landscape that doesn’t actually sound like its influences. Witness “Vox Pops,” which incorporates a very Partridge Family-sounding keyboard line and a very Brian May-sounding guitar solo; “Hope and Glory,” an upbeat pop song; and “Bring Back the Glow,” a smooth, rolling ’70s number. Joy from across the pond.
Chris Murphy with Michael Carpenter | “Real Love” This absolutely gorgeous ballad recasting of John Lennon’s song is one of this year’s major triumphs in melodic pop music. For this rendition, the tempo has been slowed, allowing Murphy to lovingly communicate the depth of the emotional lyric. Murphy’s vocal may well be the best vocal performance of the year. His ability to hold a melody line’s final note in such an artful way, to sustain its resonance and maximize its impact on the listener, is something to behold. Recorded with precision and heart by Carpenter on the occasion of singer Kylie Whitney’s wedding (Whitney also sang background vocals), this new version of this wonderful song is proof positive that covers can reveal new layers of emotion not previously brought to the surface.
Emitt Rhodes | Rainbow Ends Forty-three years after his third album, Farewell to Paradise, was released, this new collection surfaces to critical and listener acclaim, and rightly so. Here are songs that feature all of the Rhodes hallmarks: beautiful, catchy melodies; inventive chord changes; and those velvety, smooth, sturdy and emotive vocals. Perhaps this is no more evident than on the emotional ballad “I Can’t Tell My Heart.” Somewhat reminiscent of Mirror‘s “Love Will Stone You,” this is a showcase for Emitt’s committed, vocal delivery; the gorgeous melody and emotional lyrics combine to sketch the breakup of a relationship and a considered plea for the other party to embrace the option to heal. A wonderful surprise and an instant classic. Welcome back to a truly special artist.
Daisy House | Western Man Doug Hammond and his daughter Tatiana’s album for the ages features golden harmonies and great songs that will melt your heart all the way through. The heavenly duo channels the Byrds in the uptempo “She Comes Runnin’ Back” and “Twenty-One,” offers up a catchy, playful vibe with the singalong number “Willow,” and delivers a strong, emotive ballad with the orchestrated tune, “Western Man.” Best news of all: a new album is soon to be released. Happy new year, indeed.
Where to Get It: Bandcamp
Brain Circus | Brain Circus This smashing collection of impossible-to-resist songs performed in grand style by ace songwriter and keyboard wizard Brian Curtis, late of the much-loved band the Oohs, serves up 13 numbers in all, performed entirely by this transplanted Virginian. The majestic, heartfelt love song “Finally Found the One,” a musical sculpture formed with smiles and tears and a whole lot of heart, is but one highlight. You’ll detect essence of the Beach Boys, Jellyfish and Queen, among other classic touchstones, but this is all Curtis and don’t you forget it.
Where to Get It: Bandcamp
The Flat Five | It’s a World of Love and Hope This Chicago-based band of harmony-hounds deserves supergroup status, thanks to the members’ affiliation with artists such as Neko Case, NRBQ and the New Pornographers. Welcome a deliciously wondrous assortment of luscious pop dressed in a variety of comfortable musical clothing that runs the gamut from the Manhattan Transfer-meets-hep cat vibe of the delightful “Buglight” to the Paul McCartney retro-sway of “I Could Fall in Love with You” and the pretty back porch balladry of the Roches-like “Bottom Buck.” Pretty special all the way through.
Bent Van Looy | Pyjama Days Based in Paris, France and a member of the band Das Pop, Bent Van Looy’s 2016 release is a lovely, pure poppy collection of sweet-sounding catchy melodies sung with assured style, like the upbeat pop number “My Escape,” beautifully arranged with little Beach Boys vocal flourishes weaved in; “Mr. Fletcher’s Song,” a melodic mid-tempo ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Randy Newman album, and the sumptuous title track, a three-minute genius construct, nicely orchestrated and adorned with a smile-inducing whistle. Pop on.
Where to Get It: Bandcamp
The Junipers | Red Bouquet Fair This charming collection from the Leicester, United Kingdom band recalls the sweet sunshine pop sound of the 1960s and 1970s in such lovely songs as “Summer Queen” and “Like a Merry-Go-Round.” Red Bouquet Fair is no less than the audio equivalent of smiling at your good fortune on a warm day in the park while sipping cool lemonade (the effect is equally transcendent wherever else you may be). The vocals are enchanting and the instrumentation is perfectly played. Lovely.
Tommy and the Rockets | Beer and Fun and Rock ‘n’ Roll This ace project, featuring 10 pop-rockers, co-written, except for one, by super criminal defense attorney Michael Chaney and Thomas “Tommy” Stubgaard, who plays all of the guitars, bass, and provides handclaps, shake the house, as it were. Check out the catchy, Beach Boys-influenced sunshine anthem “Here Comes Summer,” and a couple of energetic Ramones nods, “Silly Teenage Love” and “You Want Me (But I Don’t Want You)”). Cheery, toe-tapping fun.
The Explorers Club | Together This collection of songs imbued with the spirit of the best of the Beach Boys, the Four Freshman, the Association and other time-honored practitioners of the art is one of the sweetest offerings of the year. Here are songs that are beautiful and beautifully sung, lovely and lovelier still, from Jason Brewer, Wyatt Funderburk, Paul Runyon, Kyle Polk and Mike Williamson. From the southern California harmony- and sun-soaked sound of “California’s Callin’ Ya” to the Four Freshmen-meets-“Graduation Day”-by-way-of-Les Paul ballad “Perfect Day,” Together invites listeners to bathe in the beauty of harmony-filled dreams.
The Road Ahead
Harmony-filled dreams… Ah, as ever, they feel so right. With 2016 now in our collective rearview mirror, it is time to look ahead into what is just around the corner. Your favorite artists, and those new to the melodic pop scene, are itching to get going…to release their latest creations, crafted with a mix of melody, harmony, and keen performance.
Already, I have heard a few upcoming albums that I predict will knock your socks off. Nick Bertling, who records under the name Bertling Noise Laboratories, has been making a name for himself with a few rather extraordinary platters; the Lab’s latest, releasing later this month, is a covers collection called, in a nod to the great Harry Nilsson, A Little Touch of Bertling in the Night. This is a sweet mélange of favorite songs from yesterday, filtered through today’s singular sensibilities. It is uniquely Bertling, and you’re going to love it.
Dana Countryman, of whom much has been said throughout these pages, all of it sweeping-me-off-my-feet good, is about to release in 10 days, through Australia’s Teensville Records, his passion project, a tribute to the 1960s girl group and Brill Building sounds that continue to bring joy to ears around the world. Dana Countryman’s Girlville!: New Songs in the Style of Yesterday’s Hits will transport you back to a much simpler time, perhaps, when melody and joy were king. Lisa Mychols, Swan Dive’s Molly Felder, and Lisa Jenio are just three of the vocalists that help to bring Dana’s vision to life on an album that you will hug tightly. Look for Dana to appear on Pure Pop Radio: In Conversation soon to talk about this landmark release.
Bill DeMain, whose solo music and treasured albums with Molly Felder as Swan Dive will always have a place here on Pure Pop Radio, has a new record that will soon be released. After hearing and playing on the air a bonus track from Beans, a lovely arrangement of the Beach Boys’ “Wendy,” we hope the release date comes very soon.
The Word is Love
“Spread the word,” the Beatles sang back in 1965. They were talking about love, not melodic pop music written and recorded in the 2010s, but they might as well have been looking forward, as should we all.
In 2017, we look forward to bringing you more of the greatest melodic pop music from the ’60s to today. We’re on the job 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. A click of any of the Listen links that follow will connect you with our stream. Spread the word about Pure Pop Radio, if you will and, if you haven’t already, please click the Follow button on the homepage of this very website to ensure that you will be notified by email every time we make a post.
Thanks for reading our list of our Favorite Records of the Year: The Stars of 2016. Add them all to your collection; your ears will thank you, as will I.