All In Our File, My Fellow Traveler: 2016 In Review

I started 2016 in a recording studio and I’ll end it on a stage (specifically, Double Door in Wicker Park). Those are fitting bookends for my busiest and most productive music year yet, but I’ll get to that in a moment. First, however, the biggest change in my life this year: After two years in the city, I moved out to the suburbs. Liesi and I got a place together in Villa Park and adopted the best little cat named Jazz. It has been a great seven months so far, and I look forward to many, many more.

The Cubs won the World Series this year. While I’m not a Cubs fan myself and I don’t follow the sport closely anymore, these were the most exciting games I’ve ever watched, and I’m so happy that my friends and family, especially my grandmother, got to see their favorite team on top.

A couple more non-music things:

  • Favorite book I read this year (including non-2016 releases because I don’t keep up with new books outside of my favorite authors): Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
  • Favorite movie of the year (with the caveat that I haven’t seen many of the big late fall/early winter releases): Arrival

I went to 90 shows in 2016, the most of any year yet. My favorite was a seated Conor Oberst performance at the beautiful Thalia Hall in Chicago. His setlist included all ten songs on his raw, sparsely arranged new album, Ruminations. True to the recordings, Oberst switched between acoustic guitar and piano and had a baritone guitarist as the sole backing musician.

My Favorite Shows I Attended In 2016

  1. Conor Oberst – Thalia Hall – 11/27
  2. Thursday – Double Door – 9/17
  3. Copeland – Double Door – 12/1
  4. The Junior Varsity – Castle Theater – 9/1
  5. LCD Soundsystem – Lollapalooza – 7/31
  6. Julien Baker – Lincoln Hall – 4/14
  7. Bruce Springsteen – Bradley Center – 3/3
  8. Against Me! – The Metro – 6/19
  9. Ben Folds – Summerfest – 7/9
  10. The Sidekicks – Wicker Park Fest – 7/23

Of the 90 shows I attended, I played at 55 of those, also a record for me. All of my bands got great opportunities this year, but the highlight was Movies About Animals opening for The Junior Varsity at the Castle Theater in Bloomington. The Junior Varsity was a cornerstone of my early interest in music, and I usually cite Wide Eyed as the first album that made me care more about guitar playing than lyrics.

In April, I went on my third tour with City Mouth. We hit new cities around the midwest, got to hang out with Whale Bones again, and made some great friends in our tourmates, Old Fox Road. I’m looking forward to doing a lot more of that in the near future.

My newest band, Pelafina, played our first shows and released our debut EP, Pelafina 64. It was my first experience recording and mixing on my own, and I can’t wait to do more of that with Pelafina and eventually others as well.

I’m not sure how many new albums I listened to in 2016 (maybe I should keep track of that next year), but it felt like there was something new and interesting coming out every week. From the smallest indie bands to the biggest pop stars, every scene and genre seemed to have standout releases, and my own lists are just a miniscule sample of what’s out there.

My pick for album of the year isn’t much of a surprise. John K. Samson has been my favorite songwriter since I discovered the Weakerthans in high school. Like Springsteen writing about New Jersey, Samson is a master at giving his songs a sense of place. The settings on Winter Wheat range from bustling cities to rural dive bars, TV studios to recovery centers, all the forgotten corners of Samson’s native Canada. He even ventures across the Atlantic Ocean for "Fellow Traveler," which takes place in England. In relatively few lines, Samson manages to make each location feel lived in and loved by an ensemble of characters as vividly realized as that of any novel or film. On Winter Wheat the spotlight turns to struggling grad students, eccentric outsiders, beautifully personified trees, of course, a cat named Virtute. It’s a deep and rewarding listen for both fans of the Weakerthans and newcomers to Samson’s work.

Unlike last year, I did decide to rank this list, but the numbering feels arbitrary after the top three, and I can wholeheartedly recommend everything on these lists to just about anyone.

My Favorite Albums of 2016

  1. John K. Samson – Winter Wheat
  2. The Hotelier – Goodness
  3. Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
  4. Pinegrove – Cardinal
  5. Jeff Rosenstock – Worry
  6. Camp Cope – Camp Cope
  7. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
  8. Conor Oberst – Ruminations
  9. Touche Amore – Stage Four
  10. All Get Out – Nobody Likes a Quitter
  11. Brian Fallon – Painkillers
  12. Joyce Manor – Cody
  13. Butch Walker – Stay Gold
  14. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
  15. Empty Houses – Daydream
  16. Anthony Jay Sanders – I Will Be the One Who Goes
  17. Drive-by Truckers – American Band
  18. Balance and Composure – Light We Made
  19. Mitski – Puberty 2
  20. Yellowcard – Yellowcard

A few bands who released really solid EPs this year deserve honorable mentions. These are all midwest bands, some local and some from a little further out, who are making this a really exciting time and place to be involved in the music scene.

  • Hot Mulligan – Opportunities
  • Kayak Jones – Memoir
  • Classic Schmosby – Part 1: Makeshift Happiness
  • Everyone Leaves – The Lonely End
  • Short Handed – Peace of Mind

My Favorite Songs of 2016

  1. Mitski – "Your Best American Girl"
  2. The Menzingers – "Lookers"
  3. John K. Sampson – "Virtute At Rest"
  4. The 1975 – "Paris"
  5. Pinegrove – "Old Friends"
  6. Chance the Rapper – "Same Drugs"
  7. The Hotelier – "Two Deliverances"
  8. Butch Walker – "Wilder In the Heart"
  9. Brian Fallon – "Red Lights"
  10. Conor Oberst – "Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out"
  11. Touche Amore – "Flowers and You"
  12. David Bowie – "I Can’t Give Everything Away"
  13. Jimmy Eat World – "You Are Free"
  14. Joyce Manor – "Fake ID"
  15. Modern Baseball – "Just Another Face"

"Challenge" by Anthony Sanders gets an honorable mention since he still hasn’t released a studio version, but I listened to the live recordings more than anything else this year. Rarely, if ever, have I heard a song that speaks so strongly to my own experiences and emotions about choosing not to drink.

So what’s to come in 2017? As I write this, I’m listening to the masters of the full-length album that Movies About Animals spent all year recording. It’s my favorite record that I’ve ever been a part of, and it will be out in January. Pelafina’s EP will be getting a reissue in January as well, with some of the recording touched up and a new mixing and mastering job. City Mouth is almost done writing a new EP that should be out in the first half of the year. Between all of my bands, I’m playing fifteen shows in the first two months of 2017 (hopefully this winter is a mild one). As always, keep an eye on this page for upcoming dates.

As always, if you come to my shows, listen to my records, support anything I do in any way, including just reading what I write here, there’s no way I can thank you enough.

See you next year.

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