I’ve been publishing lists of my favorite albums annually since I was eleven years old. In the early days, I published them in little magazines that I wrote for an audience of one. Today, I offer them to you as treasure maps. You’re invited to explore.

This year, I’ve recorded my introductory reflections. You can listen to that here, or read a transcript below:


I’m back here at my post to express my gratitude:

First, for you, the Looking Closer readers who kept this website alive this year through generous contributions; and…

Second, for the artists whose works of imagination, beauty, and truth blessed me during what was, no doubt about it, the most difficult year of my life thus far.

I won’t describe here the more personal events that made 2016 so difficult. Suffice it to say that I suffered deeply dispiriting losses, both personally and by virtue of being close to others who suffered. But artists — particularly musicians — consistently inspired me to go on living, loving, hoping, praying, giving, and striving.

These artists reminded me that I am part of a global community of truth-tellers, public servants, civil rights champions, believers, and dreamers. They are people of courageous imagination and generosity of spirit. They stand as agents fighting back against a new epidemic of deception and destruction in this country I call home. Their light exposes the spiritual bankruptcy of the compulsive liars, the sexual predators, the racists, the self-interested billionaires, the science-haters, and the fake-news dealers that Americans voted into office this year — those deceivers-in-chief who are dismantling democracy for their own gain, before our very eyes, and claiming God’s favor as they do it.

I am glad, as I listen to this music, to know that I am not alone.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, every artist I know whose work has drawn me closer to the generous gospel of Jesus Christ is currently taking a stand in stark opposition to our new anti-American administration. Note: By “anti-American,” I mean that the new leadership in Washington won power by preaching messages of hatred, prejudice, self-interest, and dishonest nostalgia. And now they are making policy out of those promises.

While I know that I should never make the mistake of confusing my church and my country, I have always taken heart at how America’s founding ideals have been influenced by the Gospel. I have loved the dream of a country that offers “liberty and justice for all.” America, influenced by the Gospel, is at its best when it brings good news for the poor, for the exploited and abused, for the neglected and oppressed minority, for the endangered immigrant.

I hear that generosity of spirit, that dream, in the music that I love. I hear it in brave anthems calling us to action. I hear it in anger over injustice. I hear it in songs of empowerment for neglected populations. I hear it in songs of Psalm-like grief. I hear it in the courage of those who can still sing with good humor, playfulness, and joy during these dark times.

The chemistry of truth, beauty, and mystery that defines great art provides solace, affirmation, a way to rage, a way to grieve, a way to escape the lies of despair, and a way to hope for the fulfillment of God’s promises.

So, here, for what it’s worth, is Part One of my three-part annual Favorite Recordings celebration.

Like last year, it is organized in three categories. You might call them “Good,” “Great,” and “Greatest” — but that makes me uncomfortable. It takes so much time and attention to have any sense of the greatness in a song or an album. I’m more comfortable categorizing them like this:

Part One

  • Thank-You Notes for the “Bronze Medalists”: Albums I enjoyed, played several times, and recommended; the mp3s I’m glad I downloaded.

Part Two

  • Enthusiastic Fan Letters for the “Silver Medalists”: Albums I visited at least once a month this year; albums I bought for the home library; records I recommended with giddy enthusiasm.

Part Three

  • Testimonies of Love and Gratitude for the “Gold Medalists”: Albums I wanted to hear every week; albums I’d be happy to own in multiple formats; albums I’d like to keep in stock so I can give them away to everybody; albums that made a significant difference in my head and heart this year.

I hope you find some new discoveries among these recommendations and expressions of gratitude.

My Thank-You Notes (or, The Bronze Medalists)

— listed alphabetically by artist —

Sam Beam Jessica Hoop Love Letter for FireSam Beam and Jesca Hoop

Love Letter for Fire

Thank you, Jesca Hoop and Sam Beam, for collaborating and providing some vibrant new sounds! I love Beam’s work, but he rarely sounds so genuinely enthusiastic and even joyous in his delivery. These harmonies are lovely, and the arrangements are a delight. This was a big surprise, and one that almost slipped under my radar — I think this record deserved more attention than it got. I love “Chalk it Up to Chi,” “Every Songbird Says” (see the video below), and “Know the Wild That Wants You.”

Readers, check out Mark Deming’s praise for this record.


Robbie Fulks Upland StoriesRobbie Fulks

Upland Stories

Thank you, Mr. Fulks, for bringing authenticity and humanity to bluegrass — a form that is too often embraced for mere nostalgia.

Your lyrics speak of intelligence, conscience, and humility. I particularly admire “America is a Hard Religion,” which is oh so timely, and “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man” is hilarious. Steve Albini’s production is pristine, giving this record an immediacy and a remarkable intimacy, and the musicianship is precise and spirited, sometimes exhilarating. (Readers, check out Mark Deming’s praise for this record.)


Cameron Dezen Hammon

Words Don’t Bleed


Perhaps my opinion is biased because we were classmates, and I had the privilege of reading (and the challenge of editing) your excellent essays. Perhaps it’s that you and I grew up with similar ’80s and ’90s pop soundtracks. Perhaps it’s that I have a soft spot for synth-pop arrangements like these.

Whatever the case, I love how strange these familiar songs sound, recast in a woman’s voice. They cause me to question further the audacity and often unnervingly presumptuous nature of the original songs (sung by men). And yet, despite the ironies that you underline, you also tap into the passion underlying each one.

While Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” sounds suddenly scary (an effect that I suspect was intentional), Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” has never sounded lovelier.


lucius good griefLucius  

Good Grief

Dear Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig,

Although this isn’t as wonderfully strange as your previous record Wildewoman, the unapologetic power pop is still the best of its kind now playing. And you’re the real deal — you write your own songs!

I like how “Madness” becomes almost unhinged (another song, “Gone Insane,” literally goes to pieces later), and “Almost Makes Me Wish for Rain” is a track that one can easily imagine as a cover of some lost Annie Lennox masterpiece.

One question, though: Did your cover designer conspire with the person who designed the brilliant movie poster for The Lobster?


Over the Rhine 

Live From Nowhere Else — Barn Raising Concerts

Karin and Linford,

You might as well have titled this double-live album Can’t You Feel the Love Tonight?

Thank you for capturing these live performances on your new event-venue property. This is beautifully recorded, and it offers something that the studio records, as much as I love them, haven’t yet conveyed: the improvisational inspiration and zeal of your live shows, in the presence of a wildly appreciative audience made up of your most loyal fans. You and the audience clearly fire each other up, and the result is some of the most electrical material you’ve recorded.

Your band is exceptional, as always — it’s always great to hear Jay Bellerose bringing his “percussion weather” to your songs, and we finally have an album that highlights multi-instrumentalist Bradley Meinerding’s work. As a longtime fan, I’m grateful to have these variations of favorite songs; they feel lived-in and fully realized. I’m especially grateful for these live versions of “Suitcase, “Called Home,” and “Born.” Thanks also for throwing in a new song: “Making Pictures.” It’s lovely.

I don’t have a video to share for this one, alas. I’ll keep looking.

Rihanna AntiRihanna


I mean, I knew you could sing. But… wow.

I turn up the volume whenever my car stereo’s shuffle lands on “Love on the Brain,” “Higher,” or “Close to You.”

Taking that leap from Rihanna Admirer to Rihanna Fan was not something I ever saw coming. But here I am.

Readers, check out Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s praise for this record.


Heads Up

The drums, the drums! Once again, Warpaint, it’s all about your sensually percussive and sometimes sinister sound. This one doesn’t have the standout tracks of their self-titled record, but I still go to a wonderfully dark and dreamy place listening to your chemistry.

Listeners: Check out “New Song,” if you’re looking for the obvious single.

But I like “Whiteout” better. Want strange? Try “The Stall.” Or addictive, try “Above Control.”

I’m going to stick with you, Warpaint. You reportedly threw this record together quickly. I won’t mind if you keep up this prolific pace.

Gillian Welch BootsGillian Welch

Boots 1: The Official Revival Bootleg

Thank you, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. While we wait for your next full album, I’m happy to pass the time by listening to this generous helping of more from the days of your classic debut.

Hard to pick a favorite. Here’s “Georgia Road.

Come back soon to read Part Two (the “Silver” and “Gold Medalists”)…