You’ve got shopping, we’ve got suggestions. Here are 11 albums from 2016 that are perfect for holiday gift-giving, across a wide variety of styles.
Shirlette Ammons, “Language Barrier” (Churchkey): Durham’s Shirlette Ammons has always inhabited a wide range of vocal identities, from hip-hop emcee to garage-band belter. So it’s not at all surprising that “Language Barrier” covers a lot of ground with skill and style, ranging from arty R&B to flat-out rock and even Americana. It also finds her sharing the microphone with an amazing guest list of cameo vocalists – Indigo Girls, Meshell Ndegeocello and members of Mount Moriah and Hiss Golden Messenger among them – which makes for a very cool super-session.
Beyonce, “Lemonade” (Parkwood/Columbia): The drama over “Becky with the good hair” and whether or not various “Lemonade” songs grew out of Ms. Bey’s real-life marital woes dominated this album’s media narrative. And that’s a shame, because “Lemonade” stands on its own as a spectacular work about identity and empowerment (which came through loud and clear when her “Formation” tour played Raleigh in May). Look for Beyonce to lead the field when Grammy nominations are announced next month, deservedly so.
David Bowie, “Blackstar” (Columbia); Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker” (Columbia): David Bowie died from liver cancer just days after “Blackstar” was released on Jan. 8, his 69th birthday, and he used this album’s spaced-out jazz-rock and accompanying videos to say goodbye. Going on a year later, listening to it is both moving and difficult; leave it to The Man Who Fell To Earth to make even his own death a work of art. “You Want It Darker,” meanwhile, emerged just 17 days before Leonard Cohen’s Nov. 7 death – and found the great bard facing up to the end with every bit as much stoic grace as you’d expect.
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Drive-By Truckers, “American Band” (ATO): In the most contentious election year of modern times, Alabama’s favorite sons stepped up with their bravest album to date. “American Band” does not shy away from racism, gun violence and other hot-button topics, but Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s disarming straightforwardness keeps “American Band” from veering into polemical territory. It rocks when it should, glides when that’s called for and leaves you something to think about afterward.
Robbie Fulks, “Upland Stories” (Bloodshot): Before making his way to Chicago and becoming an Americana star, Robbie Fulks spent his formative years in the Triangle. Long-ago memories from these parts dominate “Upland Stories,” a beautifully written and deeply felt expatriate’s rumination that should resonate far beyond North Carolina. Anyone who has ever come to love a place after leaving it should feel a pang for lines like, “Chapel Hill never done me no wrong/It was fine until it wasn’t.”
Skylar Gudasz, “Oleander” (Daniel 13): Durham singer-songwriter Skylar Gudasz has been wowing crowds for years with guest-vocal spots alongside Chris Stamey, Eric Bachmann and others on stages all over the world. But that could hardly prepare one for the shocking greatness of her own debut album “Oleander,” which is a mature and fully realized pop gem. It would be perfect for the confessional-singer/songwriter enthusiast on your list.
Hiss Golden Messenger, “Heart Like a Levee” (Merge): This album began as a Duke Performances commission last year, in which Hiss Golden Messenger main man Michael “MC” Taylor was tasked with writing songs to accompany a photo exhibit. The songs that resulted were far more personal than that, but they’re better for it. “Heart Like a Levee” is richly emotional country-soul, delivered with a shot of love.
Mandolin Orange, “Blindfaller” (Yep Roc): Even at their most forceful, Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz put forth a relaxed vibe that soothes the soul. The Chapel Hill duo’s fifth album “Blindfaller” is another low-key masterpiece that gives the impression of a night on the porch singing for the pure pleasure of it. That off-handedness is central to Mandolin Orange’s appeal – all their records feel like stolen moments, where you stumble across someone singing and secretly listen. Maybe even hum along yourself.
Maxwell, “BlackSUMMERS’night” (Columbia): More than seven months since Prince died, his passing still hasn’t sunk in all the way. And not that anyone else could ever really take his place, but Brooklyn-born Gerald “Maxwell” Rivera sounds more than up to the challenge of extending Prince’s legacy of multi-faceted R&B into the future. “BlackSUMMERS’night,” Maxwell’s first album in seven years (and sequel to 2009’s “BLACKsummers’night”), is another high-concept, highly listenable winner.
William Tyler, “Modern Country” (Merge): Looking for perfect driving music for holiday travel? Look no further than guitarist William Tyler’s “Modern Country,” which doesn’t really sound like country music (at least not as heard on this planet). But this album’s seven mesmerizing, sweepingly atmospheric instrumentals are just right for cruising the highways and byways of these United States. “Modern Country” sounds like Ry Cooder on a Krautrock binge, and it’s great fun to imagine the movie that this music might accompany.