2016 MUSICAL FAVORITES
2016 doesn’t deserve a summation. Not that I could do it justice if it did. I lost friends and family at an alarming rate, and more escaped with merely a close call. Music lost Princes and thin white dukes, and the world lost tyrants and kings. We move on, for that is mankind’s one enduring legacy. We bury our dead and keep on truckin’. I alternate between thinking we’re too stupid or too stubborn to understand what we leave behind, or too shattered to do anything but trudge forward. I’m guessing it’s both at the same time.
In 2016 I finally gave up caring one whit about the conversation around our culture or being a part of it. Anyways, all I ever got from the zeitgeist was hives. Music became more personal than ever, with my time spent more with hoary old favorites than the new hotness; I talked more about Queen in 2016 than any time since my junior year in high school. When I did mention something new, it was often a single tweet in the wilderness. This year I took music in and held it tight to my chest.
Favorite Reissues/Box Sets of 2016
v/a - Music of Morocco: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959
Bowles was an enthusiast, not a musicologist, and he made no attempt to capture the breadth or depth of Morocco’s musical traditions or the current scene circa 1959. This is music that meant something to him; the set is nearly as much a snapshot of the man who recorded it as of the music within. The key word is nearly, for context or no this is a glorious collection of music. I once heard a bad rip of a scratchy copy of the 1970s LP compiled from these recordings. It didn’t prepare me for this box at all.
Queen - On Air
For the third year in a row Queen trawled their archives for a release I love and most everyone ignored. While I’m not insane enough to want the 6 CD version with 3 discs of interviews, the 2 disc release of the BBC recordings are stunning. Covering five radio appearances between 1973 and 1977, it shows Queen’s evolution from heavy prog-rock newcomers to imperial rock gods. It straddles their studio perfection with their live power; like most BBC sessions, there are overdubs and multi-tracked vocals, but these are four or five songs in a day situations. They had to have these songs down to the point they could get a quick basic track and not get precious about it. Less precious Queen is not a bad thing.
Metallica - Ride the Lightning box set
While the live shows on the Kill ‘Em All deluxe box set showed Metallica as not quite ready for prime time (I’m honestly surprised some of those performances were approved for release as they’re actively bad), the Ride the Lightning live shows make it plain why they conquered the world. They’re not perfect, or even very tight, but the energy is undeniable and by this point it’s all directed in the same direction. Yeah, it’s got some demos and b-sides and the like, but you’re nuts if you listen to anything but the live sets or the original album (which has never sounded better). Get off your ass and mosh alone in your living room.
Pink Floyd - The Early Years
Pink Floyd rules.
Oh, I should say more? How about the chance to hear a horrible blues band become the greatest space rock band of all time through a bazillion discs of unreleased and often unbootlegged material? How about an amazing version of “Atom Heart Mother” sans orchestra and Live at Pompeii finally on CD? Look, it’s worth $600 just for photos of Nick Mason’s ever-evolving facial hair. But maybe that’s just me.
Harry Bertoia - Sonambient
Nothing I heard for the first time this year had a greater effect on me that being introduced to Bertoia’s work via this 11 CD reissue from Important Records. I can’t begin to explain why it hit me like a brick to the head. To be honest, I’m not sure it would have captivated me the way it has before now; I don’t think in years past I would have given it the time nor had the mindset to appreciate it. If 2016 has taught me anything it’s to accept the moment as is and to be fully present. Sonambient is music that rewards being actively within it. I know this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t get enough. Speaking of more, there is also a new LP made from unreleased archival recordings but I haven’t heard it yet. I still have years of digesting this set ahead of me.
Favorite Albums of 2016
15. Purple Pilgrims - Eternal Delight
I’m not a big fan of the dungeon synth movement or the pastel underground, but that’s because most of it sucks and I have a bunch of John Carpenter soundtracks already, thank you very much. However, I’ve become a big fan of people foregrounding the synthesizer to make weird fever dream music that sits in the sweet spot between creepy 70s Residents and late 80s dream pop. Music that makes me feel like my body chemistry has gone off in new and exciting ways will always make me happy. Purple Pilgrims make me happy.
14. Andrew Pekler - Tristes Tropiques
I saw Pekler’s music described not as “ambient electronic” but as “abstract electronic” and I can’t think of a better descriptor. It’s a broken soundscape that feels vaguely familiar while never settling into place. It’s like a video game with bad draw-in problems; paths and surroundings shift and appear from nothing, are granted solidity, and they fade back to grey mist. Tristes Tropiques is another album I would have given time nor attention to before this year. With a constantly changing present it pulls the attention to the now. No prediction is safe or right or true.
13. Kikagaku Moyo - House in the Tall Grass
Some albums are growers and work their way into your heart despite your mind’s judgment. House in the Tall Grass proved to be one of those records for me. At first listen I thought it a step back; a safe record from a band I knew could push boundaries with the best of them. But I kept listening to it so something must have clicked in my subconscious. I’m glad my underbrain won. They’re finding their own voice amidst the growing crowd of psych rock revivalists, to the point that I think they’ve grown past their roots. I wish more bands tried to grow something new instead of merely tilling the same barren soil.
12. Subrosa - For This We Fought the Battle of Ages
I’m on record as a huge fan of Subrosa so to find their latest on my list is no surprise. Yet I almost didn’t include it because I feel like this album isn’t for me. Though primarily based on the novel We, it feels personal in a way that their prior albums haven’t; like the record exists for the band’s sake and them alone. It’s not that listeners can’t understand it, but there is a feeling of utter, personal, necessity to it that makes me uncomfortable. At the same time, that personal feeling is attached to such undeniably powerful music that I feel blessed to be allowed in to share the parts of it I can. The record floored me but I can’t bear to listen to all the often.
11. The Notwist - Superheroes, Ghostvillains & Stuff
The Notwist finally put out a live album and nobody seemed to notice the momentous occasion. If you have any affection for their work of the past 14 years it’s worth hearing; the way they work as a band means there is a huge difference between studio and live arrangements and performances. I liked their last album, Close to the Glass, more than most, and this show from the resulting tour is stunning. I wish more people cared for live albums in general, and for this record in particular. It’s not to be missed.
10. Troller - Graphic
Austin’s Troller make music I’d call darkwave if that genre tag wasn’t given to what is mostly sad bunch of bullshit. The synth/guitar/bass trio make deeply unsettling music that gets heads nodding and toes tapping. Graphic is an improvement on their self-titled debut, which was itself a solid record. They’ve upped the ante most noticeably in their songwriting; much of the debut felt like fragments and hints of songs. While that has its own appeal, Graphic has banging tune after banging tune, fully realized and ready to rock the goths and weirdos.
09. Blood Bears - Blood Bears
“The Court of Owls” is a decent Batman story but it’s a killer opening track to the Blood Bears self-titled release. The Blood Bears are noise-punk rock and roll weirdos The Ronald Raygun in different cool shirts making noise-drone heavy weirdness for rock and rollers. The record has a bit of an identity crisis, trying to be many things from track to track and often within each track. I can’t say it’s consistent, or even consistently appealing. Sometimes it annoys the shit out of me. But I still listen to it all the time, and find previously annoying bits appealing and the previously appealing bits annoying. What more can you ask for in the end?
08. They Say the Wind Made Them Crazy - Far From the Silvery Light
To make a long story short, my history with this band and this album is deep and personal and to try to unpack it or summarize it will do no good. I can’t fairly judge the record anymore; it’s not my music but it’s part of my life in ways I don’t truly understand. But listening to it brings visceral reactions untied to my connection to it. It’s not like anything else I know. It’s not experimental in the sense of new sounds or structures, but at the same time I’m unable to peg it down in any other way. Folk songs from a different plane? The soundtrack to an existential bad trip on the Texas plains? It’s an album for a few fervent fans to obsess over and for moat others to be left eternally puzzled.
07. Benoît Pioulard - The Benoît Pioulard Listening Matter
Another Benoît Pioulard album, another top ten finish. His last album, Sonnet, was my favorite release of 2015; The Benoît Pioulard Listening Matter is great, but not life changing like that record has been for me. Some of it is a different approach from Pioulard, whose soundscapes here meld with his folk song sensibilities instead of overwhelming them like they did on Sonnet. His ability to straddle these two disparate worlds, and to meld them into a coherent sensibility, is striking. I can’t think of another artist besides Brian Eno whose point of view so easily and comfortably embraces these sonic poles.
06. All Them Witches - Live In Brussels
All Them Witches has released several live recordings, but this show from a European date on the Dying Surfer Meets His Maker tour is their best work yet, in or out of the studio. The songs from that album form the core of this show, but I feel comfortable in saying that in almost every instance these versions improve on the album versions. That’s no small feat; Dying Surfer Meets His Maker is one of the best records of the past several years, but this is a band building it’s reputation on it’s live performances and this proves why. Based on the show I caught in Dallas, I’m a little worried about the weird fratboy jamband audience they’ve captured. But if they became as big as Dave Matthews did via that route the world would be a better place.
05. Fox/Soper Duo - Magenta Line
The Fox is Greg Fox, drummer for Zs, Guardian Alien, Liturgy, etc. The Soper is Ryan Soper, modular synthesist and video artist that is half of Non-Native. The combined duo is an uncomfortable mix of acoustic and electronic instruments that is mostly pure sonic assault with short passages of tense detente. It’s the most challenging album on my list; there are tracks here that can clear the room of anyone even vaguely uncomfortable with power electronics. However, Fox is a supple drummer who always seems able to throw nuance into his blistering runs, while Soper teases interesting sounds and melodic motifs from his synth when not trying to melt the room. I haven’t had great luck turning folks onto it but that’s their loss.
04. Ultimate Painting - Dusk
There isn’t a year that goes by that I don’t want to hear new jangle pop indebted not to the Byrds but to the third Velvet Underground record. Ultimate Painting have grabbed my ears two years running, first with Green Lanes and now Dusk. I liked Green Lanes; it brought me succor in dark times. But Dusk is on another level. It numbs the world’s harshness to slowly decaying reverb and harmony vocals, keeping me warm as I rock back and forth, clutching myself against the horrors of 2016. Thanks, gentlemen, for your musical equivalent to an opioid haze.
03. M. Geddes Gengras - Interior Architecture
What’s it like to live inside the head of an artist? To be honest, it probably sucks. Though maybe not in the case of M. Geddes Gengras. Interior Architecture is an apt title for this double album collage of weird electronic ambiance and floating drones; Gengras’ takes the listener on a Myst like guided tour around the weird house of his mind. I found it a place I wanted to return to again and again, discovering new wallhangings and puzzling out the strange wallpaper in the bathroom, wondering why one chair is hung on the wall like at a Shaker meeting house while another has no seat.
02. Horse Lords - Interventions
Man, if this was what folks called math rock in the 90s I would have loved math rock. The precision, the “oneness” (for lack of a better term) required to pull off these songs is immense. As a non-musician I’m impressed to the point of looking at my hands, trying to imagine them doing this, and laughing. But it isn’t prog-metal wankery or pointless shredding; Horse Lords explore rhythmic and melodic variations in a way that makes me want to whoop and holler and cheer like a bandwagon fan trying way too hard. It’s exciting, vibrant music that makes me inexplicably happy. This was not a year for happy and Interventions brought much needed release. Also, it has saxophones.
01. 75 Dollar Bill - Wood Metal Plastic Patter Rhythm Rock
75 Dollar Bill kindly named their latest album after the genre they play. But this record is more than that simple core descriptor. It expands on the sound of percussionist Rick Brown and guitarist Che Chen by adding guest trumpeters and saxophonists, a violist, and a contrabassonette (pretty sure that’s not right). With Wood Metal Plastic Patter Rhythm Rock, 75 Dollar Bill went from a band I liked to one that absolutely floored me. When my friends Tyler and Marc started singing this album’s praise in the late spring I was hesitant to believe. I was wrong, they were right. As Tyler wrote for Aquarium Drunkard, “It’s hard not to slip into ridiculous hyperbole when it comes to 75 Dollar Bill. Best band in New York City? Best band in the USA? Best band in the universe?” Right here, right now, all of that is true. Wood Metal Plastic Patter Rhythm Rock is built on the simple formula of riff + rhythm + repetition = rocket into space. And they say rocket science isn’t easy.
CORRECTION: I got a kind note from Rick Brown of 75 Dollar Bill –
“thanks for the really nice comments and choice of our album to top your list!!
I did want to make one clarification/correction: You have the title slightly wrong. The 4th word is Pattern, which might give a slightly different impression…”
Because I’m too dumb to actually READ the title of the album on the shelf, I’m leaving my misremembering there for all to see. My comment that it’s the genre they play works better with PATTERN than patter, so hey, everybody wins and you can laugh at my idiocy forever.