Thursday, December 8, 2016

the year in Music: a dozen classics to celebrate in 2016

Wow..... what a year. Don't let the door slam your back on the way out, 2016!!! This was not just the most contentious and vitriolic election I have ever lived through, but the first faculty strike my union has ever undergone.

On top of that, musical icons were dying left and right throughout the year. David Bowie passed away just 10 days into 2016. His final, Blackstar, received five Grammy nominations, including Alternative Album of the Year. Within a month, Glenn Frey (Eagles); Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane) and Maurice White (Earth, Wind and Fire) had followed Bowie into the after life.

In late March, Malik "Phife Dawg" Taylor (one of the founders of A Tribe Called Quest) died. April witnessed the death of one of country music's most beloved outlaws, Merle Haggard, on the 6th. Two weeks later, pop chameleon Prince passed on the first day of spring, April 21st.

Within ten November days after the contentious election of Donald Trump, three more music legends had also died: Leonard Cohen (Nov. 10); Leon Russell (Nov. 13) and Sharon Jones (Nov. 18). To music lovers, it felt as if heaven's concert conductor was assembling an all-star cast of angels to join the heavenly choir just in time for Gabriel to blow his trumpet for the seventh time.

Three of the musicians who died in 2016 left behind artistic achievements that rank among the best "final statements" ever recorded. They were so good they made dozens of "Best of the Year" lists, including mine.  Here, in order of my own preference, are my favorite CDs of the year.

1. Teens of Denial.  Car Seat Headrest (Matador). Car Seat Headrest sounds best when your lean your head as far back into your car seat head rest and crank up the front speakers. Out pours heart-pounding, foot stomping rock n' roll music with an attitude. Teens of Denial helped fill the emotional and recreational gap that came after my son's band took a break from playing small clubs in Philly. I'd been spoiled by the adrenaline rush Luke's band, the Late Greats, provided about once a month. Car Seat Headrest is fronted by Will Toledo, whose manic singing style suits the bombast of the band's music well. The first two singles -- "Vincent" and "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales" -- got enough FM airplay to propel the band into Next Big Thing status. Both Rolling Stone and Paste placed the CD among the four best of the year. I never got tired of listening to this one.

2.  American Band. Drive-By Truckers (ATO). Released in late September, just six weeks before the presidential election, American Band  felt like the most-politically astute album of the year. When I purchased tickets to see the band perform on November 9th, the evening after election day, I had anticipated a highly charged party for local liberals. As great as their show was, felt more like an elegy than a celebration. Nevertheless, the power of its songs, especially Patterson Hood's "What It Means", spoke eloquently about the nation in a way that will resonate for DBT fans for decades -- if we're all fortunate enough to get that much time. Not quite country, not quite rock, American Band is a testimony to the strength of American music, if not quite the testimony to America's greatness the band was aiming for.

3. Give It Back To You. The Record Company (Concord Records). If blues is your favorite trick bag, this is a CD you need to hear. This L.A. three-piece blues band performed in July at the WXPN festival in Camden, N.J. and overwhelmed the surprised crowd with a powerful set of fist-thumping blues rock. I had a spot at the lip of the stage and I was lucky to see them early in their career, performing for just 400 or 500 screaming newbies. These guys will be playing summer European blues festivals pretty quickly. Chris Voz, the lead singer, guitarist, pedal steel player and harmonica player for the band, explained their festival performance came about when XPN's program director, Bruce Warren, heard one song on a cassette tape ("Rita Mae Young") and immediately put it into rotation at the station. In a subsequent radio interview on XPN, Voz said the band patterned their signature sound after one iconic blues album, "Hooker and Heat" a classic blues rock album that joined John Lee Hooker with Canned Heat. When they returned to the area to play at World Cafe Live in November, their polished set had only gotten better. They are not to be missed.

4. and 5. You Want It Darker.  Leonard Cohen (Columbia); and Blackstar. David Bowie (ISO).
Both Cohen and Bowie recognized the end of life was approaching when they produced these terrific swan song recordings. Both appropriately grapple with themes and images of morality and decay; suffering and pain; isolation and angst; God and religion; sin and retribution. Cohen's record feels like a throwback to his albums of the early '70s, sparse and stripped down to basic elements. There's nothing so uplifting as "Hallelujah" here. It has the observational ambiance of a Buddhist funeral service. On "Treaty" Cohen sings: "I heard the snake was baffled by his sin. He shed his scales to find the snake within." Bowie's "Lazarus" video was released just a few days before his death and images of the singer's face bound by a clothe that covered his eyes was almost too metaphorical for his fans to bear to watch. Blackstar is awash with snappy snare drum hits, jazzy sax riffs and ethereal synth sounds that create an elegy worthy of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie's greatest glam creation. Both artists left lasting legacies of recorded music. Both left last albums that rank among their best.

6. Dolls of Highland. Kyle Craft (Sub Pop). Imagine, if you possibly can, Freddie Mercury had been at Big Pink in Woodstock, N.Y. when Dylan and the Band were playing barrel house blues riffs and yucking it up just for fun while Garth Hudson's 8-track recorder captured all the glory for posterity. That's the unlikely vibe Kyle has Crafted with Dolls of Highland.  Craft's manic vocal virtuosity can sometimes render the themes of his song lyrics irrelevant. But man oh man, does his band seem to have fun behind him as he wails. "Eye of the Hurricane" is the album's first single and when it explodes out of your car speakers, you can hear Craft wearing his Freddie Mercury love on his sleeve. Like Robbie Robertson watching the Band careen out of control behind Dylan on The Basement Tapes, Craft seems incapable of controlling his mates. Pitchfork's reviewer put it in perspective: "Craft's out-sized personality is matched by less flashy, more fundamental skills: vivid immersive storytelling and sharply focused songs that have the lived-in feel of 40-year-old FM radio favorites."

7. and 8. Lemonade. Beyonce (Columbia). A Seat at the Table. Solange (Columbia). In 2016, the R&B charts were dominated by the Sisters Knowles. Rumors flew like phoenixes when Beyonce's  Lemonade was released to great anticipation and media fanfare in May with an HBO exclusive video release. The album seemed to chronicle Beyonce's marital problems that first came to public light when TMZ revealed a video of little sister Solange striking and kicking at Jay-Z, Beyonce's hubby and hip-hop empresario. The CD's title is an obvious reference to the hackneyed totem, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade." But there's little sweetness in Beyonce's performance. She serves this up as a cup of bitter vengeance. But it's hard not to feel both inspired and terrified by her bravura performance as a bat wielding car-window masher. Solange's CD felt like an affirmation of Black Power and political will during a year when African American teenagers were routinely being gunned down by white police officers. With the rise of Trump, the end of the Obama era and the imminent dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, A Seat At the Table sounds like a wistful reflection on what many Americans will look back on as America's heyday, its finest hour. 

9. A Sailor's Guide to Earth. Sturgill Simpson.(Atlantic) . Two years ago my end of the year list had Simpson's sophomore effort, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music among my three favorite albums.  This year's recording is my favorite country album of 2016. It rocks less hard than Metamodern Sounds but that's no knock. This one feels more like traditional country and Simpson's remarkable baritone is reminiscent of Merle Haggard and Jamie Johnson at their peak: soulful, gritty and utterly distinctive. The album is a song cycle inspired by the loneliness he felt going on the road to promote Metamodern Sounds just as his wife was about to give birth to his son. "Hello my son, welcome to Earth" he sings at the outset of the album opener, directly addressing his baby boy. Other songs about family life, the blessings of marital bliss and hard-won life lessons follow. If country music floats your boat, this is one sea voyage you won't regret taking.

10. We Got It From Here....Thank You 4 Your Service. A Tribe Called Quest (Epic). After 18 long years, one of the most influential bands in hip-hop finally released their sixth and final album. It does nothing to diminish their legacy as one of the most forward-thinking groups in the genre. Sadly, the band lost one of its founding members, Malik "Phife Dawg" Taylor on March 22nd and by most media accounts, the rapper's illness put considerable road blocks in the way of finishing the recording. The album plows familiar Tribe territory: politically savvy lyrics mixed with jazz-influenced beats that accenuate their political darts. On "We The People", the album's opening salvo, Q-Tip throws down this caustic, Trump-trash-talking-point: "All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / All you poor folk, you must go / All you Muslims, you must go."   Malik Taylor rests in a better place. The rest of us have this recorded testament to their musical brotherhood to help us make it through the next four years. It's the party soundtrack for the resistance.

11. Magnetismo. La Yegros (Soundway.)  The lead singer and principal songwriter of this Argentinian cumbia/electronica band is Mariana Yegros. Without knowing a thing about her, I copped $15 tickets to see the band perform its 2016 album, Magnetismo at the Arden Music Hall near Wilmington about a month ago. The "crowd" was mostly gray-haired geezers like myself, approximately 100 of us, and they were settled back in folding chairs waiting for....what exactly? No one seemed to know. Only 90 seconds into the concert's first song, the folding chairs were kicked aside and the ambulatory audience found itself coming to the lip of the stage, clapping and hooting and raising Cain. By the third song the whole crowd was up and moving; a latin-flavored party had commenced. It helps if you know Spanish to truly appreciate this album. But even if you don't, you'll find yourself smiling as you listen to it. This was my favorite world music CD of the year.

12. Skeleton Tree. Nick Cave.  In a year in music that was considerably darker than most -- for lots of obvious reasons -- Nick Cave's artistic vision was the bleakest of all. Cave's album is informed by the passing of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, who fell to his death in July of 2015. Unlike any of Cave's previous records, this one doesn't rely on screeching guitar riffs. Instead, Cave has created a somber mood piece using eerie synthesizer noises, drum loops and stark piano solos; music that serves the reflective, elegiac lyrics and the somber tone of the songs. Knowing the tragedy that lead Cave to make this album makes it difficult to listen to this more than once a week. But when a time of loss comes into your own life, this album may feel like a life preserver.

Eight others that almost made my list, in alphabetical order by artist name.  Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town; Heron Oblivion, Heron Oblivion Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings; Frank Ocean, Blonde; Okkervil River,  Away; Angel Olson, My Woman. Anderson Paak, Malibu;  The Rolling Stones, Blue and Lonesome

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