Part 2 in a 10 part series showcasing the best releases in music during the year 2016.
In part 2, we continue the countdown to the best releases in music in the calendar year 2016. If you haven’t already noticed, the music selections are far outside the normal fare that Razor Blade Dance Floor has been covering over the last 15 years. This is calculated and purposeful, hence the title of this 10-part series being referred to as Out of the Box.
Why Out of the Box? It has always been my experience as well as my fear that too many music lovers stay confined within the spaces of a comfortable box. This may be by design or by happenstance, or it could be a condition of environmental conditions or a mind with little imagination. Whatever the cause, I never wanted anyone that listens to Razor Blade Dance Floor to believe that they must contain themselves in a tightly restricted world built of industrial walls of rock and metal. My audience is smarter than that; my friends are far better than that. But some of them are still afraid to venture out in to the netherlands, perhaps fearful that they will find unnecessary alignment with the people of the real world, or maybe they consider the act of listening to other music as a self-inflicted wound against their sense of elitism.
Whatever the reason, I want everyone to get out of the box.
Get. Out. Of. The. Box.
There is a lot of great music out there, and I’m going to help you find it.
Here is 135-121.
DEAD ANIMAL ASSEMBLY PLANT – OLD FASHIONED HELLFIRE
Industrial metal from Portland, Oregon that enters this list with a shade of bias. I love this CD because it is full of seething hatred and mechanized evil. A digital fistfuck for the new millennium, carefully constructed around monster riffs a calculated rhythmic pulse an the vicious sneers of frontman Zach Wäger. What is this ‘bias’ that I spoke of earlier? The drummer is a good friend of mine. Sorry, that’s just how it is sometimes. I had all good intention of working with this band some time throughout the year to give them promotion on Razor Blade Dance Floor, but as is par for my course, life has blockaded me from advancing any related endeavors. I really hope that changes soon.
ECHOLUST – VELDISA
2016 saw a good amount of shoegaze releases, and it was extremely hard to leave a good many of them off of this list. Echolust wasn’t originally within my first or second draft of this countdown, but quickly made an impression on me with their post-punk 80’s inspired new wave sound injected in to the pulsing heart of classic shoegaze. Throbbing, dance oriented tracks that have a New Order meets The Jesus and Mary Chain feel, dripping in reverb and heartfelt nostalgia. I get the impression that these guys are big fans of Peter Hook, and I’m very, very okay with that.
CIRCLE OF DUST – MACHINES OF OUR DISGRACE
This album is a tough one to get my head around, but not because it isn’t good; actually, its really fantastic. The problem I have with this is that it represents industrial rock at its meticulous limit of perfection. It’s polished and shiny, abrasively fine tuned and percussively tight as a diamond. So what is the problem here? The problem is that I’m not really sure this is Circle of Dust. It most certainly is Klay Scott’s revival of his early 90’s project that represented a more rugged and grimy version of industrial metal, a sound that was darker and more sinister. Klay moved on to focus on other projects before finally settling on Celldweller, a much more melodic and electronic rock based formula than the grittier and dirtier sounding Circle of Dust from the past. Fast forward to 2016, and Circle of Dust gets to rear its ugly head again, but its so pristine and shiny, that it can’t help but be more closely compared to Celldweller than anything that Circle of Dust accomplished during its short run two decades ago. I’ll admit, I feel guilty bagging on this disc, because it is so really, really good. Maybe if this was something other than Circle of Dust and/or Celldweller, I would be able to wrap my head around it better? Screw it. Who cares? What’s in a name anyways? This album is excellent!
TANCRED – OUT OF THE GARDEN
I hated grunge in the 90’s. Actually, I liked it before I hated it, but that is just me being honest. What I did like in the 90’s was all of the reactionary anti-grunge pop-punk bands that rose up and tried to knock the Seattle boys off of their rockers. Bands like Letters to Cleo, Belly, Veruca Salt and a few other female fronted rock acts did more to ‘wow’ me than any Pearl Jam song ever did. I like my rock music to be catchy, simple and fun. Tancred do exactly all of that, and while it may no longer be 1996, releasing music like this two decades later is actually refreshing. This is a project now two albums deep in to their career, helmed by Jess Abbott, and while it could have captured college audiences the world over in a different era, Abbott clearly has been taking good notes from the Rivers Cuomo school of songwriting. This is not, however, a Weezer clone and is anything far from it (as some friends of mine have tried to convince me of). Instead this is alt-rock goodness wrapped in a quick striking 32-minute package.
BAT FOR LASHES – THE BRIDE
Natasha Khan is enchanting. I am mesmerized by her and her ability to write interesting and amazing songs. And her voice hypnotizes me too. Bat For Lashes is Natasha’s project, and The Bride is her fourth release under this name. Last year she branched out and did a little thing called Sexwitch, something that I didn’t fall in love with like I had expected to, but having her back doing what she does best has made this music consumer a very happy listener. This album is ambitious in scope, telling a tragic tale of a bride that is left alone at the alter after her husband-to-be is killed in a car wreck. On his way to the wedding. Brutal. This clearly isn’t your mother’s pop record, so prepare yourself for an emotional journey. Highly recommended.
BEYONCE – LEMONADE
In another man’s list, this may have landed right smack at number one, but I’m not that guy. Instead, I am going to include it here out of recognition that it is brilliant and somewhat groundbreaking. Thematically, this is a courageous baring of the soul for Beyoncé as she creates epic songwriting in an attempt to reconcile the challenges of her personal life. There is an accompanying film that takes this disc to the next level, that is filled with imagery on an artistic level that easily becomes a cinematographers delight. Alone as an album, Lemonade is striking and adventurous. It’s a pop record with no desire to exist as a hit machine. Instead, Beyoncé is content with oversharing in an effort to reach an audience of women that may not actually have thought that they had a voice. For that alone, I think that this release makes it a resounding success. Don’t discount it because it’s Beyoncé, take it very seriously and you will find enjoyment within its heart baring pain.
RADIOHEAD – A MOON SHAPED POOL
Radiohead have never been on my perceptual music radar. As a whole, their catalog leaves me empty and misunderstanding. Well, except for that one song, mostly their music has sounded like garbage to me. I get a lot of heat for that, and a lot of stunned reactions when I tell people that “I just don’t get the hype, and I just don’t like them.” I’ve tried to ignore this band, but inevitably, it can’t be done. Because this band creates things that force you to prene your ears and absorb the levels of obscurity and art that weave themselves in to palatable song selections. I want to fix Thom Yorke’s voice so badly on their albums, and I find him distracting from everything else. Somehow, above all the things that bother me about them, A Moon Shaped Pool is an album that I finally ‘get.’ I see the proverbial light at the end of the confusing Radiohead tunnel, and it exists solely as this album. Am I a fan now, coming around to the unending prodding of my peers to see things the way they see it? Maybe. Now that I can translate where Radiohead is coming from and how it relates to my tympanic membrane, I will have to return to all of those classic Radiohead albums and see what I have been missing. Only time will tell.
TEEN – LOVE, YES
Ladies! So many talented ladies on this list! I have become smitten with an endless parade of music releases that have been presented by rock songwriters and musicians of the female persuasion. Teen’s third release is a fabulous leap forward, showcasing maturity while still retaining a youthful zeal, upbeat alt-pop song structures and instantly memorable harmonies. I’m not the target audience for this kind of music, but when it is done so well, as it has been done on Love, Yes, then its okay to take notice. And perhaps sing along to a track or two. No matter how weird your buddies think you are for liking it. I’m not talking about me. Nope, not at all.
MANNEQUIN PUSSY – ROMANTIC
This Philadelphia based quartet packs a pistol-whipping punch in to a short, 11-song set that clocks in at under 20 minutes. If there is anything wrong with this album, it is that very fact: it’s too damn short. But what Romantic lacks in length, it makes up for in girth. The tracks are frenetic, hardcore-punk at their absolute finest. Front woman Marisa Dabice is intense, delivering powerful statements while also slinging her guitar, creating a wild blend of angst and harmony over top of moments of complete cacophony and unmitigated punk noise. Energetic, frenetic and powerful, Mannequin Pussy capture a heightened sense of aggro-punk while smoothing out the rough edges with melody and efficient songwriting skills.
THE HANDSOME FAMILY – UNSEEN
I think I’m not alone in mentioning that season 1 of HBO’s True Detective was great, but season 2 was forgettable. So, if you are in that camp, perhaps you agree that the opening theme song for season 1 was perfectly placed by some genius that works for the show. That track, “Far From Any Road,” is not on this album, but it is the song that put The Handsome Family on my musical map. Why on Earth would this band and their interesting album be placed on a list that features so much punk and metal music. Isn’t this album a collection of folksy Americana nestled deeply in the soul of Country & Western music? Why, yes, it most certainly is. I must whole heartedly admit that this is an album that I had to force in to my repertoire in an effort to expand my listening palette. After several spins, it nestled itself into an uncharted portion of my ear that I didn’t know existed, and left me yearning for more. I know, weird. Right?
BLOSSOMS – BLOSSOMS
The idea that alternative synthpop bands could make arena level music while lightly leaning on a guitar pop sound evolves immediately as a bad idea… that could be turned good with just the right touches of rock and roll song structures, electro-dance enthusiasm and a muted level of pop-sensibility melodies. What would happen if bands like New Order or The Pet Shop Boys borrowed ideas and presentation from a band like Muse or maybe U2? Blossoms sounds nothing like any of those bands, but the formula is there on their debut album, and ambitious albeit long foray in to upbeat guitar pop that is worthy of a listen or 10. I’ll go ahead and say once again that I’m clearly not the target audience for this act, but I sure did enjoy this release more than I thought that I would.
JENNY HVAL – BLOOD BITCH
This isn’t the weirdest sounding album on my list, but it is certainly dark, disturbing and oozes with creepy-yet-awesome soundscapes that create a liquid tapestry for Jenny Hval to sing over top of. Who is she and where did she come from? Is she a witch? Is she a vampire? What the hell is going on during this disc? What in the world am I listening to? Why can’t I turn it off!?!? I think I have been hexed by the music of this album! Okay, enough of those shenanigans. Blood Bitch is a fascinating release that is accentuated by Jenny Hval’s warped mind and enchanting singing style. It is a bold and often breathtaking release that begs to be listened to alone in a room lit only by candlelight. With a crucifix and a handful of garlic by your side.
LAMBCHOP – FLOTUS
A fascinating release that handles a low-key approach to album oriented rock, bringing with it the usual musings of the venerable frontman Kurt Wagner. FLOTUS (For Love Often Turns Us Still) is singer-songwriter in approach without any of the usual baggage that the genre is saddled with when it travels down a folk or Americana paved road. Lambchop have a long career, and musical exploration is kind of what they do. FLOTUS brings that exploration to an introspective level, but also to an exploratory one, utilizing sounds and techniques often found in electronica, hip-hop or other synthetic musical presentations. These ideas and developments are no where near the forefront of the 11-track album, but they do exist as a supporting role for how these songs transpire. This is a late evening, settling down with some good wine kind of listening experience. Your only expectation is to settle back and let your body relax while your mind drifts away with the lyrics.
MOTHERS – WHEN YOU WALK A LONG DISTANCE YOU ARE TIRED
Here is another surprising release that wound its way in to this list, and stands out because it is an indie rock band out of Athens, Georgia that is fronted by the creative vision of Kristine Leschper. There are moments of absolute peace, elements of country music and a good old Appalachian mountain laid back attitude. And then there is wide open jam band feel that jets through like a rush of cool mountain air ushering out the morning fog from the valley below. Amongst it all is the stories being told by Leschper, delivered in heart warming appeal and momentary despair. This is a thinking man’s indie type band, and it exists as an experience that is best experienced when it is allowed to breathe. I like to think that this is the soundtrack to an evening spent in front of a fireplace drinking single cask bourbon after a long hard day at work.
WEAVES – WEAVES
Who says art rock can’t be fun and interesting? Weaves, a Toronto, Canada based indie rock act fronted by Jasmyn Burke, handles an unhinged setlist of quirky rock songs and gives art-rock a minor facelift. While it manages to be extra appealing than some of their contemporaries, Weaves handles things a little bit differently, making the listener actually feel comfortable as opposed to the usual sound challenging, audience alienating desires of other art rock bands. I am probably misleading you because Weaves is more indie rock than art-rock, and much more palatable than purveyors and critics of this style of music would usually allow it to be. I want to say more, but the music is better left listened to, rather than me dissecting it in a confusing manner, making it sound half as good as it really is. Just listen for yourself and ignore my meandering words…