Happy New Year. Surely, 2017 can only be better than 2016. But who knows at the moment? What’s for sure is that music will always be a comfort. In that spirit, highly anticipated 2017 releases include confirmed albums from Elbow, Fleet Foxes, Foxygen, Grandaddy, Grizzly Bear, Horse Thief, Nadia Reid, Nikki Lane, Real Estate, Ryan Adams, The Shins, Son Volt, Strand of Oaks, and Sun Kil Moon. And then there’s always the H-LM wish list. This year, it includes Adrian Crowley, Alela Diane, Anaïs Mitchell, Bill Callahan, David Vandervelde, Feist, Field Report, Fionn Regan, First Aid Kit, Israel Nash, Jason Isbell, Jim White, Laura Veirs, Lewis & Clarke, Noah Gunderson, and Phosphorescent. Mind you, some of these artists were on my wish list this time last year. So, fingers are tightly crossed. Whatever happens, let’s start the new year with some good news. Word is in that Kramies is recording new demos. I can’t wait to hear the end result. In the meantime, here’s Kramies (feat. Jason Lytle) with ‘Clocks Were All Broken’.

This is always a really exciting time. A whole year of new releases to be anticipated. We know there’s material forthcoming from Villagers, Eleanor Friedberger, Andrew Bird, Dylan Leblanc, Shearwater, Tindersticks, Lucinda Williams, Sun Kil Moon, and Damien Jurado. There are also rumours of albums from Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Robert Ellis, and PJ Harvey. That’s a good start. But there’s much more to hope for. Last year, I was really lucky. Right at the top of my 2015 list was music from Elvis Perkins and Sufjan Stevens and both were kind enough to oblige. So, artists, if you are listening, here’s my wish list for 2016 – Bill Callahan, Phosphorescent, Richmond Fontaine, Anais Mitchell, John Vanderslice, Bon Iver, Kathleen Edwards, Kate Bush, Grizzly Bear and/or Department of Eagles, David Vandervelde, Neko Case, Emmy The Great, Ryan Adams, Feist, Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, Fionn Regan, Fleet Foxes, and, of course, Kramies. Do please oblige. In the meantime, here is the great one with his classic ‘Sea Otter Cottage’.

What do you get for the artist who has everything at this time of the year? A mention on the Half-Life Music Best of 2015 list, of course. Here are my favourite albums of the year. Artists, you’re welcome. Happy Holidays.

Joanna Newsom – Divers

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My favourite album of the year was full of wonderfully elliptical phrases, both musically and lyrically. There were hints of earlier work. ‘You Will Not Take My Heart Alive’ had a distinct ‘Monkey & Bear’ feel. Yet this is an songwriter who showed that she is maturing with every album. There was simply nothing to compare with it.

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

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An album about maternal abandonment and death? Only his Sufjanness could write this most beautiful set of songs about such a miserable theme. Just the thing to put on at that point in the holiday when the merriment becomes just a little bit too much.

Sun Kil Moon – Universal Themes

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If Mark Kozelek has a marketing manager, then she or he must surely have been doing a face palm at the very moment when this album came out. Mr Moon’s frankly offensive comments to a journalist on the eve of its release overshadowed the critical reception to the album. To be fair, the music press still tried to assess the album dispassionately, but it was difficult. Yet this was a masterpiece. Woven together across the different tracks, the observations were pointillistic, but the themes were indeed universal.

My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall

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‘Only Memories Remain’ was the wistful coda to a triumphant return to form from the Jacketeers. It pointed to the fact that underneath the rollicking riffs and shimmery synths, there were some darker themes to The Waterfall.

Sun Kil Moon – Universal Themes

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Universal Themes. Anyone familiar with Mark Kozelek’s recent work will immediately know what to expect. Death. Unconditional family love. Random unfairness. Before you’d even pressed the play button, you’d know that you were going to hear another bunch of songs about sick relatives and the tragic passing of family members and close friends. You’d know it was to going to be tough, but you’d also know you were going to experience yet another fine album. But you’d be wrong. This is different. Better. This is one of the most outstanding albums of recent times. The universal themes remain, but they’re expressed even more personally than before. And if it’s possible, the result is all the more affecting. Sure, there are new stories of third-party tragedy and loss. But without belittling them, they’re not the most important part of the album this time. “I’m gonna tell you a little story here because well what the heck”, he tells us in almost throwaway manner on ‘Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues’. Instead, more than ever, the universal can be found in the very local. The everyday. The mundane. “As I walk around the block you live on I see poetry on every inch of it”. There are plenty of examples. The dying possum under the air conditioner. The minnow bucket on a fishing trip. But there’s more to this album than a series of personal reflections. There’s a philosophy. And on ‘Garden of Lavender’ it’s expressed perhaps most clearly. “My heart is drawn to the small, out of the way things that I can’t help but to give my focus and attention and care, ’cause they shut off what hijacks my brain, and help to tune out what can cause me pain”. The songs are full of pointillistic little details to illustrate the principle. The film-set grind. The brief encounters. Across the album, we hear what hijacks Mark Kozelek’s brain. We see how he shuts it out. And in so doing, we experience it too. And as if that wasn’t enough, what’s truly amazing is how the music captures this philosophy too. The songs are consistently being chopped up. So on ‘With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry’, a classic grungy riff is suddenly broken off, only to be replaced by a fragile, haunting little melody. It’s as if he’s been drawn to small out of the way musical themes to help him tune out of what can cause him pain. It’s truly mesmerising. After all all this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Universal Themes was a miserable listening experience. But it isn’t. There’s real humour. There’s a great anecdote about bumping into Jane Fonda. There’s the admission, in answer to a heckler, that he doesn’t really hate Nels Cline. “His name just rhymed with one word or the other”. There’s also the irony of him going to see a band and complaining that they didn’t play his favourite tunes, “It’s 2012 but I like the ones from 1992”. This from the man with a catalogue going back to 1989, but whose last live album didn’t contain anything before 2010. The whole thing could have been a complete mess. But the images are beautifully knitted together across the set of songs. Details about the trip to Flims, Switzerland, the kitty cats, the visit to Cleveland, and plenty of others keep cropping up over the length of the album. Mark Kozelek’s new release is a highly personal creation. But it’s full of universal themes. Truly the wonder of life prevails.

Consequence of Sound review

Paste review

The AV Club review

Not to be left behind, here are my favourite albums of 2014. A warning to those with a sensitive disposition. This selection includes some truly miserable albums. Ah, bliss.

Dan Michaelson and the Coastguards – Distance

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Dan Michaelson is probably the best purveyor of down-at-luck-yet-still-with-the-strength-to-get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning songs around at the moment. This was yet another wonderful album in that vein. And he topped off the year with a Christmas song. A depressing one, of course.

Adrian Crowley – Some Blue Morning

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Adrian Crowley can certainly clear a room at parties. Yet Some Blue Morning found him in a surprisingly upbeat mood. These things are relative, though. Put on the magnificent ‘The Wild Boar’ and watch the queue for the bathroom grow.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji

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Not quite as memorable as last year’s collaborative affairs. A little more bitter and the first half of ‘Dogs’ should have had a R rating. But throughout it all the humanity shines through. And ‘I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same’ was an absolute classic.

Margot & The Nuclear So And So’s – Slingshot To Heaven

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A resounding ‘return to form’ for Margot and her gang of glow-in-the-dark chums. Beautiful melodies about the human condition delivered in a sad and slightly world-weary way. There is simply no better recipe for a great album.

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain

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The boy genius returned with an album full of wonderful songs. From the rousing ‘Governor’s Ball’ to the  contemplative ‘Common Knowledge’. And on this album he was patched up with the help of First Aid Kit. It only made things sound better still.

Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Perils from the Sea

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This is a magnificent album. A collaboration between Sun Kil Moon and The Album Leaf, both elements combine perfectly. Jimmy LaValle of The Album Leaf provides the backing. Mainly electronic including the drum beat, it’s pretty minimal. Crucially, it’s never in competition for the song. With guitars on only a couple of tracks, LaValle sets the basic foundation throughout. Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon gives us the vocals and the lyrics. Along with Willy Vlautin of Richmond Fontaine, Mark Kozelek is about the best story teller around. What’s more, they seem to be his stories. Told in the first person, they seem utterly authentic. ‘Gustavo’ has a Vlautin-like theme with the acutely observed story-line details. But it’s Mark’s house that Gustavo is renovating and it’s Mark who fails to help when Gustavo gets deported. At least three songs tell us directly about his touring experiences. The flights, the hotels, the ceiling gazing. Is it miserable? Well, it’s Mark Kozelek. So, you’d expect it to be. Twice we’re told that touring is lonely and more than once we’re told about people who’ve died. But that’s not the feeling you come away with. There’s sarcasm. “My guitar was broken and in need of repair, Thanks for the hassles Korean Airways”. And irony. Visiting Australia, he tells us “It rained all the evening and it rained all the day, Never got to see the outback or visit Bon Scott’s grave”. But mainly there’s plenty of hope and love. “I’m so happy to be alive”, he sings, “To have these people in my life”. And then there’s the 10-minute closer. After wistful tales of tragic deaths, he ends with a description of him sitting in a plane looking down on San Francisco about to come home from another long tour. “And at The Golden Gate and Oakland Bay Bridges many boats are sailing, And the wonder of life always prevails”. At 78 minutes, this is still a lean album. The work of Jimmy LaValle ensures that. But most of all it’s a 78-minute glimpse into what makes us human and how we react to the human condition. Wonderful.

All Music review

Pitchfork review

Consequence of Sound review