Part 7 in a 10 part series showcasing the best releases in music during the year 2016.
The death knell for the music industry has been sounding for quite a long time now. I can remember as a child, my father lamenting the loss of interest in music because vinyl was being pushed aside in favor of magnetic tape recordings. Magnetic tape recordings had been around for quite a while before I was even aware of them in the 70’s but the compacting of the audio recording in to a more portable size as a 60 or 90 minute cassette tape was quickly overtaking vinyl, reel-to-reel and 8-track tapes as a viable and consumable method of distributing music. In the 80’s, the compact disc began to show itself as a force to be reckoned with, and then in the 90’s home computers became more affordable and there became ways to compress the audio sources in to even more compact media.
We are in an age where music has become disposable. It no longer holds the value that it once did when I was a child and even as an adult. I talk to kids today, and 99% of the ones that I talk to think that it is funny that anyone would even spend money on music. When I try to explain the amount of work that goes in to writing and recording music, I can see their eyes glazing over. They have no attachment to the art of music and place no value on it whatsoever. We think that the music industry has died or is in a state of collapse, but just wait until the millennials have kids. That is the generation that is going to create the music apocalypse.
Until then, artists are in a constant scramble trying to identify how to create their art and make it relevant. Some of the questions that they have to ask themselves are: Do I make single songs or full albums? How do I release this music? How much touring and merchandise do I need to consider if I want to make a living off of it? Is a physical product even worth it anymore? How are people going to hear this music? Can I count on word of mouth anymore? Where do I begin? When does it end?
Seriously dark times are upon us, and have been since the advent of the .mp3 file format. There are some individuals that are going to blame platforms such as Napster or Apple as the ones that enabled all of this, but the truth is that this was going to happen anyways. Pointing a finger at the culprits only makes the accuser feel better. It does absolutely nothing to solve the problem.
While it is obvious that you maintain an interest in music, hence your desire to visit this site and read this list along with my thoughts, something you should consider is “what is my role in all of this and what can I do to be part of the fix?”
The answer isn’t clear, but it is out there. If sustainability is to be achieved, we are all going to have to figure it out. Soon.
Here is 60-46.
WIRE – NOCTURNAL KOREANS
Wire has come a very long way since their punk and post-punk beginnings 40 years ago. They are now masters of their craft, eschewing the sounds of the seminal Pink Flag or Chairs Missing, offering a kinder, gentler version of post-punk that illustrates a band that is clearly creating music on their own terms. Nocturnal Koreans is somewhat an extension of the sounds and ideas that were presented on their 2015 self-titled release, a superb record in its own right. Nocturnal Koreans is a bit lazier in its approach, gathering songs that appear to be throwaways from sessions that were recorded on the making of that 2015 release. This isn’t to say that this is an inferior release full of disposable tracks that weren’t good enough to make the original cut. This release feels more like a drifting and droning mood changer, a simpler option to counter balance the more hyperactive Wire album. Its hard to believe that this is their 15th proper full-length release, and one has to figure that the curtain is beginning to fall on their glorious and under appreciated career. I for one am not ready for their ride to end, so lets hope that they can churn out several more relevant releases before they decide that they have done all that they think that they can do.
VADER – THE EMPIRE
I have a dark place somewhere near the center of my heart that is reserved for heavy, unapologetic, brutally crushing metal music. While I enjoy the occasional death metal album, my desires and interests lie just on the other side of the heaviness wall, and a part of the metal landscape that weaves bone crushing thrash metal and the darker edges of death metal. Heavy, aggressive, powerful and fast thrash metal that is relentless and unforgiving. Vader have been able to amply fill any void in my life for fulfilling these dark desires, a musical road that I travelled frequently 25 years ago but less so now. I’m quite a bit older, so the heavy-fast-brutal-evil onslaught of music is a little more difficult to get my head around, especially when I feel less and less in common with the foundations of this aggressive form of art. Truthfully, when I was younger I used to joke with friends that I would be a metalhead forever, but secretly understood that time had a way of changing things, and that maturity and life events would inevitably chart a different path than I had any level of predictability for. Thankfully I still can get behind releases like this and have the capacity to not only understand them, but to also enjoy them. Vader are no spring chickens either, so I am also grateful for their ability to pull off an album like The Empire.
BLOOD ORANGE – FREETOWN SOUND
I am not well versed on the plights seen and felt by African-Americans, or even more so what it is like to black in any part of the world. There are a different set of challenges that I will never experience, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to try to understand them. I have a good friend who does not share the same pigmentation in his skin as I do in mine, and he told me point blank one day that I would never understand what it is like to be black. NEVER, he emphasized. And he is 100% correct. But I can try , even though never is a pretty final way to approach it. This year, I explored several releases that exposed a world and an ideology that might as well have been a foreign language to me. But I’m not a fan of closed doors and the word never, so I opened my ears and listened to the works of artists like Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Beyonce, A Tribe Called Quest and several others, in what may be their most important year to combine for a singular, extremely important message. Adding to that message as Blood Orange is Dev Hynes, a brilliant artist that has created an album expressing what his mother and father went through with their transition from living in Guyana and Sierra Leone, to living in London, England, and then moving to the United States in to New York City. This is stories of challenges and frustration, a diverse sound palette drenched in R&B, reggae and an excellent mix of electronic music and world sounds. The album has a beautiful flow to it, with an array of collaborators and contributors that round out an easy to listen to album with challenging themes. Do I understand the complexities of being black? No, I’m not even close. But maybe through powerful music and my desire to listen, maybe I can get just a little bit closer.
DEERHOOF – THE MAGIC
I love weird music. I am desperately in search of something strange and raucous that embraces the heart of freedom and a lackadaisical attitude that screams “Fuck it!” Deerhoof are perhaps the closest that I can find to the full embodiment of this concept. There is a fine line between something being decidedly weird and being purposefully experimental. Now, I’m not going to rule out the idea that Deerhoof are an experimental art band, but I can’t imagine a group of individuals set out on creating audio experiments and having it result in this wonderful experience. There are elements of avant garde, artistic expression, off key sound distributions, punk rock, and big bright explosions of noise and sound. It is a collective ball of energy that can’t be labelled, nor can it be defined. This is alt-rock without rules and it is altogether whimsical and sometimes confounding. The Magic is a post-punk adventure in weirdness, but comes together as anthemic and relevant. The mixture of noise-pop, jazz, funk, rock, and punk is an endearing adventure in sound that gives this band a chance to continue their mayhem on this, their 16th release. Deerhoof are sort of new to me, since I only discovered them about three or four years ago. Which is crazy because they have been at it since 1997, creating a wild 20 year career that has gone strangely unnoticed. Maybe they are just too weird for the real world, but based on how damn serious life can be, this should be the exact medicine the doctor would order to mellow everyone out.
EAGULLS – ULLAGES
Every year, a number of artists come out with releases that are reminders of years gone by, capturing moods and attitudes of a different generation, but updated to give the impression that they are new and fresh. A lot of those bands fall flat and are immediately written off as being a tribute band, or even worse, a copy cat. Eagulls released an exceptional self-titled album in 2014 that was immersed in the heart and soul of Ian Curtis, an album of post-punk explosiveness that had Joy Division fans in a flutter. On their latest release, Eagulls dial it back a bit, losing a bit of their edge but placing their hearts firmly upon their sleeves. Swirling in a healthy dose of The Cure or Echo and the Bunnymen within their Joy Division Kool-Aid mixture helps the band create a sound that is more heartfelt and emotional. There is an encapsulation of swirling guitar and wild mood swings that paint drab portraits of goth beauty and post-punk despair. If all of this is sounding a bit too retro, don’t let it stress you out. Their music is refreshing and exciting, even if it does come across as a little too familiar. Eagulls do what they do so well, that it makes perfect sense to forgive them for all of the homages and replicating sounds that they present on this disc, because they are so gorgeous and sad that I now am less upset that Robert Smith needs to retire someday. But that thought still makes me sad, so there is that.
NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS – SKELETON TREE
Nick Cave has a storied career of creating tales of tragedy and sorrow, elegant epics of fantasy and horror designed to pull at the heartstrings and tell the world of a hidden reality. When life events rise up and destroy the bonds of family, shattered by death and love lost forever to the truth of mortality, the approach to writing music takes on a twisted, uncomfortable turn. Not long ago Nick Cave lost his son due to an accident that found Arthur Cave making some unfortunate decisions that led to his falling to his death off of a cliff. As a father of two boys, my greatest nightmare is the thought of having bury a child. A parent should never have to do that, if there was a merciful God that cared for each and every one of us exactly the same. Unfortunately, incidents such as Arthur Cage’s death further add to my agnosticism, so I can only mourn with Nick Cave as a father and wonder what kind of pain and suffering he must be going through. The new CD by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree, answers some of those questions, presents challenges to the way we process these events, and deals with them on such a cerebral level, it is almost hard to listen to. But understanding the past, while interpreting them through these 8 modern gothic songs makes for a challenging listen. Not challenging because they aren’t good musically, because these are about as elegant and dark as Nick Cave has ever been. The challenge lies in interpreting the suffering and his ability to process his sons death through lyric and song. This is one of those releases that you really need to prepare yourself for, because it can really bring you down if you don’t go at it with a full understanding of their origins. Applying these ideas to your own life events or trying to process them in other ways may cause you to miss the purpose of the release and lose its overall vision. A vision that is very, very heavy.
DIIV – IS THE IS ARE
Four long years ago, I stumbled upon Diiv, a Brooklyn, NY band that created dark waves of elegant shoegaze drenched in goth toned atmospheres and electronic fuzz. Their album Oshin was a staple in my playlists throughout the next few years. Oshin always felt incomplete, a vision unrealized, an idea unfinished, or even a thought unspoken. There was something missing and I just couldn’t place it. So imagine my glee around this time last year when i discovered that the band were finally preparing to release their follow-up, the eerily casual Is The Is Are. Before I gloat about the perpetual sounds of spacey drones and post-shoegaze (yeah, I just dropped that shitty term) whirr that is expressed upon this release, I need to ask a question: What exactly is the is are? If you can help me decipher that, place a comment in the box below. I’m clueless. Perhaps this is one of 2016’s greatest questions. What is the is are? I would love to say that the mind races with the possibilities, but I just don’t know where to start. I ask that question out loud, and then it stops dead right there. You guys do realize that I’m a smart ass in real life and that this is my poor attempt at humor, right? Good. I’m glad we got that out of the way. I wrote about this album earlier in the year. Here is what that review said:
DIIV is primarily the child of Brooklyn, NY based artist Zachary Cole Smith, that has always had one foot firmly on the ground in an honest and dark interpretation of modern shoegaze, and the other foot stirring the waters of indie rock. 2012’s fantastic release “Oshin” was lauded by critics and fans alike, paving the way for Smith and his contemporaries to make enough of a splash that found themselves being invited to large festivals and opening for the likes of No Joy, Japandroids, Ride and The Dandy Warhols. Fast forward three and a half years, and DIIV are at the cusp of proving that their debut was no fluke. Their second album is a 17-track excursion in to honest and dark territory that finds them nudging away the noisier sounds that encapsulated the recordings of their debut, relying more on meandering echo driven guitars, steady bass lines that sound like the lovechild of Peter Hook and Kim Gordon, along with the whispery, almost dreamlike storytelling of Smith himself. The entire collection works as a labor of love, adrift in introspective and dimly lit tales woven in to a tapestry of loud-quiet-loud sound excursions. A surprising treat placed within the first third of the disc is the track “Blue Bedroom,” a song that features the dreamily caressing voice of pop up-and-comer Sky Fereirra, presenting a sound that simulates a hushed and subdued version of late-era Sonic Youth. “Is The Is Are” is beautiful, brilliant and actually a solid and refreshing release that gives a fresh pair of legs to the concept of indie rock immersed in a pool of psychedelic-tinged dream pop.
There you have it. Old words in a new post. Yay.
FRANK OCEAN – BLOND
If you don’t know who Frank Ocean is, and haven’t discovered that he is a genius, then stop reading this comment, go put this album on (or any of his early work), and immerse yourself in to his deep and introspective music. This is a different listening experience, one unlike anything that I can compare it to. This is psychedelic hip-hop, a trip down LSD lane with the smell of marijuana floating innocently behind. Tales of Trayvon Martin, post-Katrina New Orleans, and uncomfortable sexual trysts displayed like torn up love letters reconfigured with dayglo scotch tape. The enigma that is Frank Ocean, the mystery that he creates as his wall against life, the reclusive behavior and the cryptic messaging that is inextricably placed against his race and sexuality are all on display within this release. It challenges and expresses in ways that makes the listener uncomfortable but wills them to dive in deeper. Frank Ocean is an interesting artist, one that is not easily understood. The music is also not easily understood, but that is what makes the listening experience so much fun. Few artists have the capacity to intrigue me in the way that Frank Ocean does, and his ability to drag me along in to his interesting little world and make me care and want to hear more is a statement to the power of this music.
THE MEN – DEVIL MUSIC
I’m not certain that the latest release by Brooklyn’s The Men was intended to be a punk rock album, but that is exactly how it turned out. Churned out in one quick January weekend, this album is alit with incendiary garage rock fury and punk rock fever. There is a lot of noise on this release, great thunderous cacophonous noise. Ten simple rock tracks that cruise by in a brisk 34-minute set, leaving behind a trail of dust, glowing embers and smoke. This is not a typical release by The Men, but not unlikely either. Just because the band have expressed themselves in a multitude of artistic displays that most recently resemble Americana or folk, doesn’t mean that these boys (sorry…Men) don’t know how to lay waste to three chords of abrasive noise punk. Utilizing at least two singers (could be more, I don’t know. I don’t care) throughout the disc, I am reminded of an edgier time in music, one that threw caution to the wind and approached life with reckless abandon. These are the kind of dangerous ideals set forth by icons like James Dean or Johnny Rotten, but are fundamental character traits that evolve during trying and turbulent times. We are living right smack in the middle of one of those storied time frames, so I can only hope that music continues to be more aggressive, more adventurous…and more punk. Music needs to be more punk. The Men know that. Devil Music proves it.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS – THE GHOSTS OF HIGHWAY 20
Earlier in this list I placed the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Skeleton Tree, and commented on the grieving process and the dealing with pain that Nick Cave expressed about the loss of his son. Lucinda Williams released The Ghosts of Highway 20 earlier this year, and I think that her presentation of how mortality is a reality and how one must face the inevitable is just as stark and crushing as the Nick Cave release. Williams is staring down the end of a 40 year career, a road that has been filled with highs and lows. With the loss of her father in 2015, and the sense of her age, sitting at 63 years old now, Williams crafts a blues filled release that is heart-wrenching and soulful. The weathered voice of Williams reaches deep within to bare all, keeping the tales of the road and the winding pratfalls at the forefront, but stitching it together loosely with the lessons learned and inevitable end that is coming all too soon. There is a slight sense of celebration, but a sorrowful tone mutes the exuberance for the successes; the failures have left their scars as well and they are not easy to hide. Above it all, this is actually a joyful listening adventure, letting yourself go to feel the music and the stories, actively allowing the imagination to roll down these rutted but inevitably peaceful roads. Life lessons are hard to overcome when they involve pain and loss, but noteworthy reflectivity and the ability to take stock of what you have left and not what is lost helps place perspective in these woeful tales. The Ghosts of Highway 20 is a beautiful woven audio landscape that is as bright with the setting sun as it is dusty from the well travelled trails.
BEACH SLANG – A LOUD BASH OF TEENAGE FEELINGS
I wasn’t going to put this album on this list, because, well, I bought it a while back but never listened to it. It sat in a stack of CD’s that I have all good intention on getting to, but just can’t figure out how to get through. I get music every day, so inevitably as newer, more exciting releases trickle in, the ones that I think aren’t going to be any good get shoved to the bottom of the pile. I made a huge mistake ignoring this release, because I thought that Beach Slang were an Emo band. I really have a hard time digesting Emo music, because I still can’t exactly figure out how to relate to it. Most of it sounds…terrible. This is not an Emo album, despite what several rock critics have tried to tell me. This album is fun, bombastic, fast, fun, very enjoyable, reaches in to the heart of punk, and best of all it is fun. Did I mention that this is a fun album? Because I have to tell you this is a really fun album to listen to. Okay, I’ll stop that now because even I’m annoyed at myself. One of my favorite aspects of Beach Slang is not so much that they can write a good 3-chord melody and let go of it before it gets too overdone, because they are very good at that. The favorite aspect is the raspy, gritty voice of James Alex. Interesting fact: while the album title alludes to the concept of teenage feelings, this band hasn’t been in touch with teenage feelings in quite some time. James Alex himself is 42 now, and even though this is only the second Beach Slang album, he is the alumni of several other punk bands. If there is one thing that you get from this release, its the idea that these guys not only gel well together, but that they can really write good songs. I don’t own the first Beach Slang album, but after listening to this, I am making a beeline to my preferred retailer (which is Bandcamp, by the way) and obtaining that release to see where it compares to this one. Something tells me that it should be just as fu… exciting.
DEATH GRIPS – BOTTOMLESS PIT
I have been having a lot of conversations about rap music lately with a good number of my peers. While I did do some extra digging and exploring in to new musical genres this year, pushing and expanding the boundaries that I had set up against myself long ago, rap actually has always been a part of my musical repertoire. I’m not well versed in the history and intricacies of rap music, and I’m not even going to pretend to be an expert on it. But I do listen to a fair share of it, which is an interesting admission from this strange, nerdy white boy that is approaching the age of 47. Part of these conversations that I am having about rap is the different eras and the evolution of the music form, where it has been, where it was good, where did it go wrong, and who is getting it right. For some reason the term “gangsta rap” gets slapped around and floated out as the area where rap went wrong. While I sort of agree, I think that there is a place for it and there is a reason for it. I know many people don’t understand my love of extreme metal or power noise, so I am not going to start and blast people for their love of gangster rap. I can’t even figure out where I am going with this, because Death Grips isn’t gangster rap, but it has been tossed under that bus quite frequently. Death Grips (who I thought broke up but apparently didn’t) are a harsh, aggressive rap act that utilize big sounds and heavy beats to express an awesomely angry side of rap. Look, if metal dudes and punk dudes can stick their middle finger up and demand the system be destroyed, I think angry rap dudes can do it too. And this album does that in spades. Bottomless Pit is a pumped up kick in the head, an album full of vicious beats and raw, unrefined energy of the most dangerous kind. But I don’t feel like Death Grips are asking us to burn the world down. instead, this is rap to blow off steam to and to get a good rush from. Bottomless Pit is very successful at finding that stored up and untapped energy, and bringing it to the forefront for alternative uses. Now if only we can learn how to bottle it…
LET’S EAT GRANDMA – I, GEMINI
I’ve mentioned several times within this list that I seek out weird music. This is the holy grail of weird right here. Weird, and infinitely enjoyable. I don’t even know what is going on half the time, but the strange, psychotic drug-trip journey that the band Let’s Eat Grandma take you on is surrealistic and bizarre on an alt-goth level. So now let me blow your mind: this band is a pair of English girls aged 16 and 17! They formed and started creating this music a few years ago when they were only 13. I have teenage children and I would be over the moon if either one of them exhibited the penchant for creating full-length songs, no matter how weird they are. There are dreamlike whispers of insane premises, fairy-tale nightmares doused in psychedelic imagery, many layers of instrumentation and a mind numbing awareness of production from such young talent. I actually want to call “bullshit” because some of this album is just too “pro” sounding, and too adult sounding (in the most mind altering of illegal substance ways) to actually be formulated by teenagers. It doesn’t matter in the end, because the experience overrides the means. Actually, if you think about the premises for many of the songs based just on their titles, you either know what you are in for, or you are going to be completely clueless. I’m betting on clueless because surrealism is the name of the game, and if surrealists are known for anything, its their utter lack of predictability. What is striking about the album is the flow that it takes on, remaining surprisingly smooth for a presentation in stark imagery and juxtaposed sound designs. I can’t even describe it, it is so fantastic. You are just going to have to try this out once. But don’t blame me if you wind up sitting at a table with a rabbit and a mad hatter pouring you a cup of tea.
FLUME – SKIN
I don’t have many electronic albums on this list because I really don’t spend much time with them. While my personal library is littered with variants on electronic music, from the minimalist wave forms of early electronic pioneers, to the sounds of IDM and electronic drone. I have probably far more dance oriented electronic music that is riddled with dub, acid house, trance, goa and more recently dub step, but the purist and most elemental of electronic music releases has a sense of pop and commercialism in order to gain a wider sense of appeal. Most people that I hang with don’t give synthetic sound structures the time of day, so its pretty hard to learn of new music and bounce releases off of them to get a sense of what is good and not good. Flume’s album Skin is one of those releases that steps outside of the boundaries and stereotypes and forges a path that isn’t necessarily unique, as it does enough to borrow from all music forms to tease the listener in based on familiarity. It probably helps that Flume sets the album up with a large amount of contributors from all walks of life, and pulls it off seamlessly. Using artists like Raekown, Vic Mensa, Kai, Little Dragons and Beck (!) helps bring a little record that could a long way up the hill. This album could possibly be a little too accessible at times, but a full listening experience will reveal a desire to develop worlds within the sound design, worlds that evolve as much as they throb and pulse with energy. My only complaint is that it stands awfully close to being a dance record, something that under normal circumstances i would never be caught dead listening to in the company of good friends. But this one I would make an exception for because it has so many fascinating facets that deserve attention from music lovers and electronic purveyors alike.
PUBLIC ACCESS TV – NEVER ENOUGH
There is a sense of youthful excitement and joyful celebration that simmers below the garage rock flavor that stews around on the debut Public Access TV release. Before we get too ahead of ourselves, it has to be mentioned that this New York City band is presenting a very digestible take on 70’s rock music as it was crafted in the Big Apple. There is perfect amounts of some of those new wave bands that hung around CBGB’s or attempted to get their kicks elsewhere. Sure, they capture a romanticized version of Lou Reed, Blondie and The Talking Heads, but there is a reach out to other areas of the spectrum where punk and rock crossed paths without sounding like each other. I think they called it new wave back in the 70’s, but new wave came to mean something else in the 80’s, so there is going to be a whole lot of confusion if you try to determine their sound off of just my sloppy words. Instead, think about the pop sensibility exhibited by someone like Paul Westerberg, and scramble in the interpretation that New York artists made of the British Invasion in the late 60’s. This isn’t exactly The Who at their prime before they started creating rock operas, or the early incarnations of glam rock when it was tempered with by the New York Dolls, The Sweet or T. Rex, but damn if you can’t feel the waves of the 70’s wafting off of these guys. Amongst all of the nostalgia is a powerful blend of today meets tomorrow as it drains yesterday of its gritty street grime. This is rock and roll, the blend nobody really makes anymore, and it is surprisingly refreshing. Love it for what it is, not for what you think it is trying to be. Its the only real way to appreciate it.