The Top 10 Solo Guitar Records Of 2016
When John Fahey recorded The New Possibility in 1968 to make a few bucks off Christmas sales every year, his album title turned out to be emblematic of the solo guitar's potential. The music grows decades later, rung out in steel vibration and wrung out from tradition. In 2016, there was an incredible bounty of guitar music across Americana, jazz, ambient, psychedelic, experimental music and what Fahey labeled American Primitive.
For sake of focus, these 10 unranked records (and a few honorable mentions) were all primarily made by one person with the guitar as the primary instrument. That's why you don't see the stellar records made by Chris Forsyth, Mary Halvorson, William Tyler or Cian Nugent this year, as they were backed by bands that understand their singular approaches to the instrument. Instead, these records celebrate new possibilities in the solo exploration of six and 12 strings.
The Top 10 Solo Guitar Records Of 2016
Daniel Bachman, 'Daniel Bachman'
- Song: The Flower Tree
One the great constants in music right now is that Daniel Bachman will always release a better album than his last. That's more a comfort than a challenge, as Bachman grows as an experimentalist (heard in a pair of blistering acoustic drones), a traditionalist (his melodies have never been this bold, bright and memorable) and somewhere between (the arresting "A Dog Named Pepper" is haunting in its patience) on his self-titled LP.
Daniel Bachman is available via Three Lobed.
Dylan Golden Aycock, 'Church Of Level Track'
- Song: Lord It Over
Dylan Golden Aycock's lineage is clear: the fingerpicked blues of John Fahey, the swirling compositions of Robbie Basho and the outward-looking Americana of Jim O'Rourke's Bad Timing and The Visitor. That's not a bad crossroads to meet your demons at, especially when so much of what we call American Primitive now is in a state of transformation. Church Of Level Track kicks up dream dust in a positively lush collection of cosmic rags, ambient country tunes and steel-string ragas.
Church Of Level Track is available via Scissor Tail.
Glenn Jones, 'Fleeting'
- Song: Flower Turned Inside-Out
Inside air and outside atmosphere fill Glenn Jones' masterful Fleeting. Between pings of steel strings, you are on the banks of Rancocas Creek in Mount Holly, N.J. Embracing his environment is an intimate recording technique that frames the quiet musical figures, as they call to each other like memories flitting between past and present.
Fleeting is available via Thrill Jockey.
Jeff Parker, 'Slight Freedom'
- Song: Slight Freedom
Known mostly for his work in Tortoise and Isotope 217, Jeff Parker struck out on his own in 2016 with the dusty, soul-jazz focused The New Breed and Slight Freedom, surprisingly his first solo guitar effort. The latter is quiet in its resolve, simple in its approach — everything's recorded live, using a Boomerang Phrase Sampler to layer loops, with light field recordings of street noise simultaneously filling up and receding from the album's airy space.
The discoveries are small in Slight Freedom — the slow percussive fade of the title track into a barely-there drone, the melody of Frank Ocean's "Super Rich Kids" given a Jim Hall-like tentativeness, the inverted and invented self-accompaniment of "Mainz" and Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" paired down to lonely tremolo and feedback. One of 2016's most unassuming revelations in guitar music.
Slight Freedom is available via Eremite.
Kevin Hufnagel, 'Backwards Through The Maze'
- Song: Beyond Light
Whether in his own bands Dysrhythmia and Vaura or playing in Gorguts and Sabbath Assembly, Kevin Hufnagel is one of modern metal's most technically accomplished and song-driven guitarists. The New York-based musician is expansive in his definition of extreme music, and while Backwards Through The Maze explores his softer, ambient side, the double EP is a deeper exploration of Hufnagel's prowess. There is an unsettled quality to his guitar manipulations that sound like Frippertronics sunk into the abyss and illuminated by an alien glow.
Backwards Through The Maze is available via Bandcamp.
01He Is Without His Guns
Marisa Anderson, 'Into The Light'
- Song: He Is Without His Guns
In her imaginary soundtrack to a science fiction western, Marisa Anderson layers acoustic and electric guitars, lap steel, pedal steel, electric piano and percussion into a celestial twang. Even with a manufactured ensemble at her disposal, there is a loneliness to Into The Light that comes from solitude in the midst of strangers, heard in the low and slow musical screenwriting that becomes increasingly more distant as the album rides into the sunset.
Into The Light is available via Bandcamp.
Rob Noyes, 'The Feudal Spirit'
- Song: Paydirt
Usually when punk/hardcore musicians go acoustic, they lean into their Johnny Cash tattoos and call it a day. On his promising solo debut (featuring artwork from Raymond Pettibon, no less), the Massachusetts-based Rob Noyes takes the path less traveled with a gnarled collection of (mostly) 12-string compositions as dizzying as they are bruising. Noyes' heavy-handed downstroke, a holdover from his old bands, gives his music a chaotic urgency that in lesser hands would fall apart.
The Feudal Spirit is available via iTunes.
06Six guitar salute to Peter Gutteridge
Roy Montgomery, 'R M H Q'
- Song: Six guitar salute to Peter Gutteridge
In his first solo work since 2001, Roy Montgomery offers four guitar records that feel at times like distant echoes. After such a long break, there is a renewed sense of vitality and searching to R M H Q — Roy Montgomery's Headquarters — that cycles through woozy dream-pop, ambient skirmishes, noisy drone-doom and, in the case of R: Tropic Of Anodyne, weathered songs haunted by the gloomy ghost of Leonard Cohen. Even as Montgomery's varying styles shift and evaporate, there's a languid and occasionally darkly humorous guitar tone that connects the wide world of R M H Q.
R M H Q is available via Ba Da Bing/Grapefruit.
Sarah Louise, 'VDSQ Solo Acoustic Vol. 12'
- Song: Floating Rhododendron
Streams ripple and leaves fall around the 12 strings of Sarah Louise's acoustic guitar, which both communes with nature and tries to make sense of its mysteries. With only one previous release to her name, the Asheville-based musician emerges fully formed with her entry into the venerable VDSQ Solo Acoustic series. Rooted in Appalachian music, yet taken by the whims of the forest, her guitar mimics flowers on water, sudden gusts of wind and other rhythms of the natural world.
Vol. 12 is available via VDSQ.
01No Path Through The Forest
Willie Lane, 'A Pine Tree Shilling's Worth Of Willie Lane'
- Song: No Path Through The Forest
Sometimes the best guitar records sound like garbage. Did Willie Lane use a cheap portable cassette recorder to capture the self-released A Pine Tree Shilling's Worth Of Willie Lane? His meandering, hazy blues already has a warbled and stretched quality, befitting a muggy afternoon and a cooler full of tallboys. Lane's psychedelic improvisations call to mind his work as a satellite member of MV & EE, and ramble with similar purpose, but seem to melt with the sun.
A Pine Tree Shilling's Worth Of Willie Lane is available via Bandcamp.
- David First, Same Animal Different Cages Vol. 1: Since the passing of Derek Bailey, no guitarist has subverted the purpose of the instrument as on this confounding and fascinating album.
- David Grubbs, Prismrose: While percussionist Eli Keszler joins on a few tracks, the former Gastr Del Sol member's solo pieces moodily mine the darker and weirder side of rock.
- Insect Factory, Work: Loop-based guitar music that surfs the skyways, realizes how high it's flown, and gently glides earthward.
- Matt Christensen, Honeymoons: The Zelienople guitarist hits somewhere between Arthur Russell's World Of Echo and Talk Talk's Laughing Stock in a guitar and voice album that seeks out space and lives there.
- Norberto Lobo, Muxama: There is a glazed romanticism to the Portuguese guitarist's pedal experiments that is distinctly non-American and otherworldly.