Part 5 in a 10 part series showcasing the best releases in music during the year 2016.
One of the things that I used to hear a lot of whenever I would enter in to a music discussion, recommend a new band or release, or even make lists such as this is “How do you find music like this?” For me, it has always been easy. I have a good friend who can find run down homes, buy them on the cheap and flip them to make a profit. All of that sounds far more complicated than finding good music to listen to. To me, anyway.
Step one is to have a passion for it. I think this applies to anything that you do, and it certainly exists in hunting down good music.
Step two is to know what you like and know what you don’t like. Not liking music is okay, hating it is not okay. Hate creates barriers against finding new music. Wading through the mud that is music research requires high tolerance for things you don’t like, but tolerating them is essential. Liking and not liking things is a matter of opinion, so you must have respect for fans and artists that like the things that you don’t like. If you start dismissing these entities, you will never be taken seriously.
Step three, you must open your ears up and hear everything that surrounds you. That includes paying close attention to the music playing on that TV advertisement, the soundtrack to that movie or TV show, the music playing at the restaurant that you eat at, the music in the video game your kids are playing, get to shows early and catch any and all of the opening bands, visit themed club DJ nights to see what the DJ is playing, and always have something on whenever possible whether it be terrestrial or satellite radio, Pandora, Spotify or any other music streaming service that is available to you. Keeping the music going not only helps you in your discovery process, it may inadvertently create another unwitting fan with the people in the room with you. I do this to my wife all the time. Subscribe to and actively listen to podcasts! Now that is a really great way to find new music!
Step four, listen to what your friends are listening to and actively ask them about what their tastes are. Don’t frown upon their responses because they are just as important as what your on opinions are. As a matter of fact, I find the music opinions of others far more important than my own. That is how I grow as a music listener.
Step five, read the liner notes on the albums that you buy. I know this is increasingly an unlikely event since buying a physical product is about as rare as seeing bigfoot these days, but if you still support this practice, read those thank you lists and see what the band is interested in. Chances are that if you like the band, you are going to like what they like too. Part of why they put “thank you’s” to other artists is to acknowledge that they need a little boost from their friends.
Step six can be simple or very complicated. I choose the complicated route, but I’m obsessive so it works for me. This step involves reading music magazine articles, reviews and interviews. I actually have a RSS feed reader that scours about 30 web sites all day long and alerts me when an article is published. I have ReGen Magazine, I Die:You Die, Consequence of Sound, Rolling Stone, NME, Blabbermouth, Spin, Drowned In Sound, The Quietus, Stereogum, Sounds Better With Reverb, DIY, PunkNews, Pitchfork, and about a dozen others that I actively read day in and day out. Sure, it is a little insane to have updates hitting your phone every 5 minutes of your day, all day long, but I thirst for this information. I’m not saying you need to be crazy like this, but this is how to stay REALLY informed.
Step seven, setup a YouTube account and subscribe to the video playlists of things like Pitchfork or Consequence of sound. Watching their live sets or specials that they post is a great way to end a long day.
There are a number of other methods that I don’t actively employ such as trading mix tapes (I know people that do this still to this day), sharing playlists (the new mix tape method), browsing YouTube lists, perusing lineup lists of music festival participants, and so on.
My music discovery process is so ingrained in to my everyday life that finding and absorbing new music is akin to the process of osmosis. I don’t even think about it: it just happens.
Here is 90-76.
BLOODY KNIVES – I WILL CUT YOUR HEART OUT TO THIS
I have three serious loves in the world of music: metal, industrial and shoegaze. I don’t think that Bloody Knives are a band that really qualify as all three, but I do like how the pulse and rhythmic nature of the tracks on I Will Cut Your Heart Out To This represent a monstrous mechanical machine, most closely related to industrial. I also enjoy how heavy the sounds and moods are on this disc, representing a powerhouse struggle with that machinery that is pushing all these waves of guitars forward, offering up a distant relation to metal. And the abrasive waves of noise that wash over you through punishing reverb? Oh, thats shoegaze. There is no mistaking that. This Texas band is brilliant and bombastic, utilizing rolling waves of audio terrorism to play villain to the calming, serene nature of Preston Maddox’s vocal delivery, the hopeless hero on this CD. I really love this band, because they are so damn near perfect on so many different levels. I absolutely recommend every album released on this list, but this CD is the one that you need to give a whirl if you had to choose only one.
SUNFLOWER BEAN – HUMAN CEREMONY
Sunflower Bean is a weird band, not in a sense that they create weird music. The music is far from weird. They are weird because they have no real ability to conform to any single genre, which is actually quite refreshing. Calling Sunflower Bean an indie rock band, or a dream pop band, or a shoegaze band, or a psych-rock band is not good enough. Its impossible to pigeonhole them in this way, so it is probably best to have an open mind to any and all of those musical forms and just let it roll in to your ears. That isn’t to say that would be all that you hear, because there are elements of hard rock, metal and electronic floating around within this release as well. I suppose Human Ceremony is best described as a really good and unchallenging release by an indie dreampop band that isn’t scared to spread its wings. I look forward to where they go from here, because their talents certainly suggest that they could absolutely go anywhere they wanted to.
BOB MOULD – PATCH THE SKY
Bob Mould released a classic Bob Mould album this year and hardly anyone blinked. I suppose this is what happens when so much good music comes out in the course of the year. Its understandable how things can get overshadowed. But this is Bob-fucking-Mould! Doesn’t anyone show respect anymore to an elder artist with a storied career, one who could be one of the premiere godfathers of indie rock, a man who fronted bands like Hüsker Dü and Sugar? I know what some of you are saying, because you said it to me earlier when this release came out: “If you have heard one Bob Mould, you have heard them all.” For shame! That is completely false. Look, I’m very high on Bob Mould to begin with, so maybe I’m a little biased, but this release is throughly enjoyable. Sure, it is a little dated sounding, like it was ripped right out of 1994, but you have to appreciate a good rock formula when you hear one. And you have to respect Bob Mould. You absolutely must. Its a requirement of my friendship of you. (No its not. To each their own. I guess.)
MEGAPHONIC THRIFT – FÅ MEG TIL VERDEN I TIDE
If you are a particularly aware music lover, you would have to admit that there is an immense level of talent that resides in the Nordic region of the world. Norway is a land that seems to be filled with beautiful lands and equally beautiful people. The music that emerges from these parts is something extraordinary as well. Megaphonic Thrift have been a round for about 8 years now, delivering a more rock oriented version of shoegaze over the course of their three full-length releases. With their latest release, the band moves toward a more space rock feel, employing synthetic sound designs to propel their airy sounds and gauzy feelings. They also change up their vocal delivery, opting to sing in their native language, something that comes across as sounding more natural and even more gorgeous than anyone in the anglosphere would possibly imagine. There are only seven tracks to represent the album, but they glisten and surge with stratospheric levels of glossy psychedelia and shimmering dreamlike audio streamers. A simple message to you to you English tongued unilinguists: don’t let the fact that this isn’t sung in an understandable language disuade you from enjoying this release. It is rewarding and uplifting, and deserves to be heard by anyone that appreciates good music.
PIG – THE GOSPEL
I have a great Raymond Watts story that I like to tell my friends and family that involves hanging out with him after The Wax Trax Retrospectacle show in Chicago, Illinois at The Metro in 2011. Its not at all related to the music that he makes, but more about him as a person: a kind human being with mountains of politeness, English charm and his value as a family man. Its a funny story, because I wanted to talk about the potential for this album even happening, and we wound up discussing our kids. I can talk to anyone about music at any given time of the day or night, and I couldn’t converse with Raymond Watts about his music. Fast forward 5 years, and The Gospel has finally appeared. I have always had mixed feelings about Pig releases, where there are certainly ones that I love, there are others that have made one round through my CD player and never again saw the light of day. I could do an entire story on that, so lets just focus on this release. The Gospel takes the classic Pig sound, Raymond’s imminently sinister vocal delivery and the usual industrial weave of electrified organic instruments and otherworldly synthetic sounds, and turns them in to a brutish rock based assault to please the ears. Its not a perfect album, but it is satisfying and gives the listener a healthy dose of vicious swine. Shortly I will be making a specialized Razor Blade Dance Floor best of 2016 list for industrial Rock and Metal releases, and its position on that list will be much more generous than it is here at 86.
MESHUGGAH – THE VIOLENT SLEEP OF REASON
I really thought that everyone had heard the term djent. This year, when I would refer to djent music, I would get very curious looks. I’m admittedly mainlined in to the music industry like a serious heroin addict, so the genre terms that I throw around do an amazing job of compartmentalizing all of the music that I listen to, and helps me push aside music I don’t want to listen to in order to get to the ones that I do quicker. When someone tells me about 3 different bands, one is math metal, one is screamo and one is djent, I can quickly sequence them to decide what band I want to hear first. Meshuggah are veteran heavy math metal machines that pummel and destroy with a very interesting twist on super heavy music. They have a habit of shunning the usual 4/4 time signature for something more sinister and mind twisting, looking towards new and interesting ways to make you attempt to count along. While they are creating this heavy, thrashy, devastating audio force, they are knocking on death metals door, teasing and taunting aggressively while pulling back at just the right moment, keeping just outside of being just that heavy. The rapid ultra-calculated metal riffing that creates time signatures on top of time signatures continues to confuse the mind, often daring the listener to define what they are listening to. Someone, somewhere along the way called it djent. So the next time someone asks you if you are in to djent music, respond with “like Meshuggah?” and you will be greeted with a smile and perhaps an offer to have the next round bought for you. And that folks, is probably the worst review I have ever written for a really great album.
16VOLT – THE NEGATIVE SPACE
Now comes the hardest review and entry that I have in this entire list. In the grand scheme of favorite bands in the entire world, 16volt is number one. I love this band, I love all of their music, I want nothing more than to hear 16volt albums spinning in my house or car or workplace at all times of the day. I also have had the opportunity to call frontman and 16volt braintrust Eric Powell one of my good friends. I was even invited by the band to join them on the road for 10 days, and I accepted. So yes, I pretty much went on tour with my favorite band in the world. Top that, fuckers. 16volt are perpetually in an evolutionary cycle, determining new ways to evolve and maintain relevancy. Early on, they were part of an American variant of industrial rock music called coldwave. As their sound progressed and they went through various incarnations and some periods of serious shit, they morphed in to a more stage friendly hybrid of industrial music that leaned more and more on organic instrumentation. Traditional builds of heavy rock and metal began to take the forefront of their overall sound, placing synthetic industrial elements further to the back of their arsenal. 16volt were becoming a live performance machine, and their albums were beginning to reflect that. Then they quit. After one album as Black December, 16volt returns with a new lineup and Eric Powell still at the helm. His vision is much different than what it may have been in the early 90’s, but that is just him doing what he wants to do. I’m almost positive that if he tried to create the albums that his naysayers wanted him to make, they would probably sound forced, and sound like shit. And Eric would be miserable. Instead, we get The Negative Space, yet another incarnation of the 16volt sound. On this release, 16volt have pushed the boundaries of their sound out a bit further, treading in to different waters, creating a new chapter in the 16volt songbook. This is not my favorite 16volt release, and probably won’t be. But I can absolutely appreciate the decisions and song structures based solely on the idea that this isn’t the 16volt of yesteryear. People need to accept that. Like this release or don’t like it. I don’t care. I know that I do, and in my world, thats all that matters to me.
JAPANESE BREAKFAST – PSYCHOPOMP
It is probably safe to say that as I get older, I become a kinder, gentler version of who I once was. I no longer argue or fight with the same kind of verve and enthusiasm that I once did. Perhaps I have tired of the conflict, or maybe I have just become smarter with which battles I choose to fight. This pacifist nature of my inner voice also has established a soundtrack of sorts, based in a light, airy version of indie rock with pop sensibilities. Japanese Breakfast are one of those bands that have attached themselves so easily to my softer side, a band I found myself reaching for time and again not only because their blend of rock and pop was uplifting and soothing, but because it was catchy and dreamlike. I was never really in to Michelle Zauner’s other band, Little Big League, but Zauner finds a delicate way to create carefree, lo-fi indie pop songs that are wistful and longing, but also exuberant and full of joy. Japanese Breakfast aren’t rewriting the indie-pop songbook, but they are establishing a chapter all their own on this debut release. I see only promising things for this act as they progress forward.
MOBY & THE VOID PACIFIC CHOIR – THESE SYSTEMS ARE FAILING
I’m not really sure what Moby is trying to accomplish at this point in his career, but I sure hope that he doesn’t stop any time soon. Moby has been better known as a successful electronic artist for over 30 years now, if you can believe that, but has at times made some surprising forays in to other musical formats. Have you ever heard Moby as a punk rock artist? He’s actually quite good. How about when Moby pairs up with big time pop artists? Surely you have heard the track “Southside,” a definitive ear worm that he created with Gwen Stefani? Moby as a producer, remixer, essayist, animal rights activist, philanthropist, and vegan messenger is a recipe for a quality human being. I like the guy based on his philosophy and merits alone. Its just an added bonus that he creates some absolutely wonderful music. So you have to imagine my curiosity when I hear rumors that his Void Pacific Choir project is going to be a more electro-rock adventure, aligned with the heavier, more industrial and darker side of music. I absolutely rejoiced at the sound of this proposition, and waited with bated breath for the moment that this CD dropped. The result is really fun. Its not as dark as I was expecting, but its Moby after all, so I wasn’t expecting Skinny Puppy or anything. Instead, it is a fun, high BPM, cyberpunk affair that dabbles its big toe on its left foot in to industrial waters, and never apologizes for it. The songs are energetic, hyper-industrial techno laced tracks that are built for the dance floor, but could easily morph in to a rock and roll stage show. Its not exactly what I was expecting, but it is still a really interesting release.
LITTLER – OF WANDERING
There is nothing I hate more than what I am about to do: I am going to throw one band under the bus to prop another one up. But for you to have a good understanding of who Littler is, this is really the best thing that I can do for them. Earlier this year, The Pixies released an album. If you haven’t noticed, that album is not on this list so far. Spoiler alert: Its not going to appear below this release either. I was unaffected by the new Pixies album, and so it remains that this might be the last time I mention them this year. Littler, on the other hand, released the best Pixies album that wasn’t the Pixies. This is what DIY indie rock sounds like when you are young and hungry, and have ideas that you believe that have never been expressed before. Well, the band dishes out a familiar brand of punkified indie rock that alternates between male and female singing that has all the hallmarks of a great band that I just wrecked earlier in this review. What is even more wonderful is that Littler expand outside of that box a little bit to define their sound a little bit more to be their own. There are messy edges and weird moments where a chord hits at a really odd angle that kind of doesn’t work, but that is what makes them all the more intriguing. After all, what we liked about the Pixies often times was how imperfect that they could be and how great that was. Littler are no exception, and their music, warts and all, is an endearing affair to be embraced by lo-fi indie rockers all around the world.
KIDNEYTHIEVES – THE MEND
If it seems like this portion of the list is loaded heavily with industrial rock releases, that is because it is. The Mend is a very successful crowd funded release by Kidneythieves that is one of the best examples of how the balance between a pure hard rock musical presentation and supporting electronic elements can exist harmoniously. Kidneythieves are one of those acts that never actually acclimated easily with the goth/industrial crowd because their sound was always bigger than the traditional darkness and evil that industrial seemed to be tethered to. Kidneythieves write songs that have a wider commercial appeal and create sounds that capture the fringe fans of the rock, electronic, goth, industrial, and alternative communities. The collaborative fan base is cross-pollination of all walks of life, something that every successful band really needs in order to break out of a niche market. What really helps is to have extremely well written, memorable songs that rock, and a singer that has a voice that nobody can hate. The fact that this act is a duo comprised by Bruce Somers and Free Dominguez is remarkable because their sound is so huge at times. This is probably their most accessible and least industrial rock sounding album of their entire catalog, but it is an amazing listening experience that has captured my ears and given me hours of enjoyment this year.
HAMMOCK – EVERYTHING AND NOTHING
Ambient music isn’t something that is prone to make its way in to my end of year lists, but shoegaze music sure can. Nashville artists Hammock are both an ambient, soul searching, atmospheric life soundtrack type of band, but they also do it with perfect washes of glistening guitar and shimmering melody. The fact that they can drop in some vocals here and there pushes them out of the normal ambient based musical spectrum and gives way to a more accessible, lush soundscape that glimmers and shines with an astral veneer cover. I ignored this album for much of the year, buying it early and pushing it aside for more aggressive and upbeat offerings. When this album started rising to the top of the heap with the lists that my peers were creating, it was time to stop ignoring it. From beginning to end, the album is mystical and enchanting. The serenity and placid diffusion of sound as it passes through the ears and in to the body are an immeasurable experience that captures the beast within and harnesses its energy with an injection of audio Ambien. Peaceful waves of acoustic guitar reverberating across oceanic visions of warm sunshine, cloudless skies and calm seas meeting a majestic land mass punctuated by snowcapped mountains is all I can see when I close my eyes and listen to this album. I think you will find that this album can bring visions of happiness and peace during your listening experience too.
THE DERISION CULT – FEAR THE JONESES
I am a total sucker for this breed of industrial metal. Its mechanized, machine-gun style speed metal approach is loaded with samples and pure concentrated evil. The hardcore protopunk attitude and futuristic visions of nihilism, dystopia, anger and negativity are bottled up in to a relentless thrash metal assault. Calculated precision of the mechanized beats, chasmic breaks in the pounding filled with random movie, television and radio samples are a welcome and almost refreshing creation, even if it does represent a different era of industrial rock and metal. This is music ripped right out the 1990’s, reminiscent of New World Order-era Ministry and the first November 17 album, Trust No One. The vocals are a little bit Rob Zombie-like here, Al Jourgensen-like there, but the hybrid is interesting enough to allow the listener to ignore. In fact, the familiarity of the vocal style probably aids in creating a subconscious attachment to the type of music that is being leveled at the listener upon this release. Exciting, raucous and mean as fuck, this release just might be what Ministry fans have been clambering for since Paul Barker left the fold all those years ago.
KENDRICK LAMAR – UNTITLED, UNMASTERED
Did anyone know that this release was coming out this year? I certainly was surprised when it dropped early last March without any fanfare. If you aren’t paying any attention to the rap world, which I know a good number of my friends aren’t, there is a rising crop of young talent that is releasing some very amazing rap music. There may be a slew of better rap releases this year, but I honestly haven’t taken the time to check them out. I hear that the new Kanye album is great, and so are the Chance the Rapper, YG, Schooly Boy Q, Future, and Anderson Paak releases that are all creating waves this year. Fortunately Kendrick Lamar roped in my narrow attention span for hip hop and rap, and will forever reach my limited interest in this music form. Am I saying I don’t like rap music? No, not at all. My problem is that I’m too white for my own good, which is my problem, not a rap problem. But I’m working on it. I want to understand it and when I immerse myself in to it, I find things that I love about it. Kendrick Lamar has helped me these past couple of years move past my inhibitions and move forward in my musical evolution. I also have the ability to identify that Kendrick Lamar is capable of stronger , more meaningful work, and that is why this album falls so far down the list. I have more rap albums in this list, and there is one that breaks my top 5. Lets call that progress in my naive and narrow music listening band that I made every effort to wreck this year. I feel like a better person already.
FRUIT BATS – ABSOLUTE LOSER
If you are reading all of these reviews up to this point, and paying any attention to the musical journey that I placed myself upon, you will see that country music has infiltrated my inner ear somehow. While rap music seems like a reach for me, the truth is that I have been listening to rap music since the mid-80’s. On the other hand, Country music is something that I avoided like the plague. As white as I am, I can not relate to country music in any way, shape or form. Until recently. I found that when country music is mixed with rock music in just the right dosage, much in the way that The Eagles or Crystal Gayle were able to do in the 70’s, then I can find a place for it deep within my cold, dark heart. The band Fruit Bats is one that has flitted around my realm of awareness for some time now, but I never actually gave them any chance to permeate my listening sphere. One day, I was flipping through YouTube and watching performance videos of random bands. If you don’t pay attention, YouTube will automatically start playing a new video for you without prompt. I know that this can be stopped, but at this particular moment in time I was not paying any attention so a new video began to play. It was a performance of the title track off of the new Fruit Bats CD, Absolute Loser. I was mesmerized. I liked it so much that I watched the performance three more times in a row. Then I ran right out the next day and bought the CD. This CD is remarkable in a sense that it doesn’t conform to anything that I believe that country music is about. Perhaps it is because it has an Americana/folk appeal to it with plenty of rock & roll structure that I can separate it from regular mainstream country music, which I find completely awful. It doesn’t actually matter because I find this album to be a perfect listening experience that requires multiple listens. The funny thing is that I tried this album out on several of my country music listening friends, and they didn’t like it at all. Kind of made me like it even more. Thats the lists prick inside of me speaking. Beware of that guy. He thinks his musical tastes are better than everyone else’s. Thats because they are. (I’m kidding. Are you still reading this? Comment below. Say “hi!”)