Nov 28, 2018

2017 Year In Review Part I: The EPs

Moving right along, here's a list of my ten favorite EPs from the year that was 2017...

10. Kylesa - Live at Maida Vale Studios (Season of Mist)
In all reality, this one could have fallen under a few categories given that it is an archival release of a live BBC session from 2014, but at only four songs I felt like this made the most sense as an EP. I've been a fan of Kylesa for years now, even after they ditched the ferocious dual drummer lineup, so I'll take any between album crumbs I can get. It features two live cuts each from 2010's Spiral Shadow and 2013's Ultraviolet.

9. Nine Inch Nails - Add Violence (The Null Corp./Capitol)
It's been a weird trip for Trent Reznor after winning that Oscar and teaming up with Atticus Ross, but all that work has really paid dividends as the second of his NIN EPs reflects. The anger and aggression are there, in spades, but what impresses most is how Reznor pulls it off sincerely as an older musician. The ire of, say, Limp Bizkit, ain't going to age nearly as well.

8. Gruesome - Fragments of Psyche (Relapse)
My favorite Death homage band continues rolling right along, this time with an EP that is essentially two new songs (one of which is a cover of, you guessed it, Death) with the title track being one of the band's best yet and a handful of demos of earlier Gruesome songs. Hardly essential, but that title track makes it all worthwhile as it handily adapts the Human-era Death sound with abandon.

7. Varaha - Varaha (Self-Released)
This was one of those blind purchases to support a local Chicago band, the debut EP by this post-metal quartet. The EP is composed of two longer tracks, at 7 and 11 minutes each, that combine the widescreen scope of Pelican with the atmospherics of gothic doom and even hints of blackgaze. It sounds like a lot, but it works. Even better is the brief interlude that ties them together, featuring Bruce Lamont on saxophone.

6. Chavez - Cockfighters (Matador)
While I can't say I was on the original, cutting edge when Chavez was out, I discovered them a few years later, they have grown to be one of my favorite of those late 90s Matador guitar bands. Particularly as I fell in love with Matt Sweeney's later work in a variety of settings. Needless to say I was hyped for new material after 21 years - even if was only three songs in less than 10 minutes. They manage to pack a lot in those ten minutes though, packing hypnotic Eastern melodies into the tunes. Could I use more? Hell yes, but this'll do for now.

5. Poison Blood - Poison Blood (Relapse)
While the band name may sound like a long-lost punk band from the mid-80s, Poison Blood is actually the black metal pairing of two restless musical explorers - Krieg's Neill Jamison and Horseback's Jenks Miller. It's an intense listen, doubly so when they crank out something ferocious and jump back out rather than letting it linger - packing in 8 tracks in just over 18 minutes. I'm hoping this pairing leads to more material, but if not - this is still worth checking out for fans of either musician.

4. Forces at Work - Forces at Work (Self-Released)
This was a surprisingly replayable EP that came out early in the year, a breezy quartet of songs that features Tyler Wilcox (an excellent writer and guy with great taste) on guitar and vocals. There's a really loose and playful vibe in these Feelies inspired tunes, but I was constantly surprised by how often I reached for it. I hope these guys put out more in the near future.

3. Mastodon - Cold Dark Place (Reprise)
Six months after unleashing the terrific Emperor of Sand album, Mastodon struck back with this EP that represents a slight shift in sound for the band. Masterminded by Brent Hinds, this EP delves into a bit more of a Southern Gothic feel, with the opening and closing tracks colored by Hinds' surprisingly strong pedal steel work. It feels perfect for the EP format and adds a new shade to the band's already colorful palette. I wouldn't mind hearing them chase this particular thread further in the future.

2. Kamasi Washington - Harmony of Difference (Young Turks)
I was starving for anything new from Kamasi after his stellar breakthrough record, The Epic. Seeing as how Washington doesn't do anything by halfs, even this EP runs an hour and manages to be absorbing throughout. Originally conceived as part of a multimedia art installation, paired with his sister's paintings, the EP flows through various tones and moods before combining them all in the terrific closing track, "Truth".

1. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - The French Press (Sub Pop)
I instantly fell for the opening track here, "French Press", spending countless hours replaying it alone before the EP was released in full. The way this Melbourne trio was able to inject so much life into indie rock was so impressive, helped by having all three members contribute lyrically and vocally. There's the jangle of Go-Betweens and The Clean, the knotty guitar lines of Real Estate, all capped with witty and compelling lyrics - the latter a troubling rarity in much of the indie rock world. I was blindsided by the title track but the rest of the EP made this one of my favorite new guitar rock bands.

Nov 24, 2018

2017 Year In Review Part I: The Introduction

I'm still working on being more timely with these end of the year lists... I'll get there someday. Before 2018 rolls to the end, I'd like to at least get my 2017 lists posted so I don't enter another year two behind.

I don't have any kind of overarching narrative to bring you about the year, it's moved too far in the rearview mirror already, but I can say that it found me continuing to chase down the various nooks and crannies of my favorite genres and surfacing new (to me) artists and paths. But the lists I plan to publish over the next few days should shed better light on what I was hearing.

I'll be counting down my favorite EPs, reissues/compilations, live albums, tracks and albums of 2017. First, though, a recap of years past...

Albums of the Year:
2003: Outkast - Speakerboxx/The Love Below
2004: Modest Mouse - Good News For People Who Love Bad News
2005: Bloc Party - Silent Alarm
2006: Mastodon - Blood Mountain
2007: Battles - Mirrored
2008: Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
2009: The Flaming Lips - Embryonic
2010: Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
2011: Fucked Up - David Comes To Life
2012: Goat - World Music
2013: Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused To Sing (and Other Stories)
2014: D'Angelo and the Vanguard - Black Messiah
2015: Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly
2016: David Bowie - Blackstar

Tracks of the Year:
2003: "Hey Ya" - Outkast
2004: "Take Me Out" - Franz Ferdinand
2005: "Since U Been Gone" - Kelly Clarkson
2006: "When You Were Young" - The Killers
2007: "Stronger" - Kanye West
2008: "Time To Pretend" - MGMT
2009: "My Girls" - Animal Collective
2010: "Fuck You" - Cee-Lo Green
2011: "Super Bass" - Nicki Minaj
2012: "Bad Religion" - Frank Ocean
2013: "The Wire" - Haim
2014: "i" - Kendrick Lamar
2015: "Alright" - Kendrick Lamar
2016: "Formation" - Beyonce

Oct 30, 2018

Gettin' the Led out

Unimaginative title aside, it's true, I've been falling into another one of those periodic deep dives into the world of those world-conquering titans of hard rock. Sure, say what you will (quite rightfully) about the negatives - the cliches, the ridiculous theatrics, the rampant misogyny, over-familiarity, the near constant ripping off of American blues musicians, all fair play - but, damn it, this band was absolutely bonkers at times.

At the time of this writing, I'm obsessed with that Moog synthesizer drone that links "Friends" to "Celebration Day", something I've heard a thousand times before without really appreciating.

And, really, that's the thing about these classic bands that I first encountered in my early teens yet continue to spark my interest again and again and again, something always new to appreciate. Your Zep, Floyd, the Stones, Deep Purple, etc. It's what elevates them above the bands that fascinated briefly at the same time, which I never return to - Doors, Eagles - I'm looking mainly at you two.

Anyway, the world sucks right now, but this is a reminder that it's okay to turn off the Twitter feed now and then and take solace in the classics.

Oct 20, 2018

Recently Enjoying

Yes, it's been far too long that this has lain dormant and I still do need to upload my best of 2017 lists at some point, but I also hope to get back around to doing some regular updating around here. I'm hopeful that some time will start to free up for me. In the meantime, I wanted to talk about a few things that I've really been enjoying lately.

Tom Petty - An American Treasure (Warner Bros.)
To honor the first anniversary of Tom's passing, we have this lovingly curated four disc collection of previously unreleased songs, live tracks, alternate versions and demos. Considering he already released a collection like this, Playback, back in the late 1990s, I wasn't sure how much more there could be. Quite a lot, as it turns out. Despite following his career in the latter half of the 90s and again in more recent years, I'd never been a dedicated fan. I still don't own many of his most celebrated albums, but this collection is wonderful. It's amazing to realize just how many killer songs this guy has written over the years. It's really well curated and presented in a lovely package, I can't recommend it enough.

Playing Changes: Jazz For the New Century - Nate Chinen (Penguin Random House)
I'm still only about halfway through this book, but I've already found it to be quite an enjoyable read. It's really interesting to read about the more recent jazz history and touchstone musicians, especially because I've been familiar with only about half of the artists Chinen has covered. The way he delved into the seeming divide between traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis and those who pushed back against him has been great to read, making it clear that there really is no "right" side to such a debate.

Bitchin Bajas - Rebajas (Drag City)
I remain, even here in the 2018, a CD guy. It's the format I grew up on and the format that was dominant when I fell in love with music. I'm happy that the vinyl resurgence has kept stores, labels and physical formats afloat, but it's not really for me. I own a turntable, but I usually stick with used records when it comes to my vinyl purchasing. Ignoring the "what sounds better" part of the debate, for me it becomes quite simple - for the price of most new records on vinyl I can pick up two to three albums on CD, which are more convenient and portable for me. Anyway, all this is to preface showing appreciation for Drag City finally releasing a 7CD box that collects the vast majority of songs by the Bitchin Bajas, previously limited to digital and vinyl formats. It's a cool package filled with such great music.

Citizen Illegal - José Olivarez (Haymarket Books)
I've been making a more concentrated effort to explore poetry and art created by those coming from a non white male viewpoint. I've read some of José's work before, including a book of poetry he published with my brother-in-law, so I guess some disclosure necessary there, but this is a fantastic collection. Thoughtful, engaging, at times hilarious, other times uncomfortable, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Dec 12, 2017

2016 Year In Review Part VI: The Albums

I'm doubtful that this blog even gets a single view in any given month these days, but I remain thankful for an outlet for my music brain dumpings. This is my favorite of the year-end lists, my 75 favorite albums of 2016...

75. Kurushimi - Kurushimi (Art As Catharsis / AM Frequencies)
74. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
73. Black Mountain - IV (Jagjaguwar)
72. Jack DeJohnette / Ravi Coltrane / Matthew Garrison - In Movement (ECM)
71. King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard - Nonagon Infinity (ATO)
70. Ultimate Painting - Dusk (Trouble In Mind)
69. Kikagaku Moyo - House in the Tall Grass (Guruguru Brain)
68. Touche Amore - Stage Four (Epitaph)
67. The Body & Full of Hell - One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache (Neurot)
66. Dinosaur Jr. - Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not (Jagjaguwar)
65. Wretch - Wretch (Bad Omen)
64. Opeth - Sorceress (Moderbolaget)
63. Wo Fat - Midnight Cometh (Ripple Music)
62. William Tyler - Modern Country (Merge)
61. RLYR - Delayer (Magic Bullet)
60. Papa M - Highway Songs (Drag City)
59. Goat - Requiem (Sub Pop)
58. Eerie - Eerie (Tee Pee)
57. Schammasch - Triangle (Prosthetic)
56. Rangda - The Heretic's Bargain (Drag City)
55. Khemmis - Hunted (20 Buck Spin)
54. Vektor - Terminal Redux (Earache)
53. Gevurah - Hallelujah! (Profound Lore)
52. Droids Attack - Sci-Fi or Die (Self-Released)
51. True Widow - Avvolgere (Relapse)
50. Cobalt - Slow Forever (Profound Lore)
49. Blood Orange - Freetown Sound (Domino)
48. Witchcraft - Nucleus (Nuclear Blast)
47. Salem's Pot - Pronounce This! (RidingEasy)
46. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.)
45. Doug Tuttle - It Calls On Me (Trouble In Mind)
44. Nothing - Tired of Tomorrow (Relapse)
43. Inter Arma - Paradise Gallows (Relapse)
42. Haken - Affinity (InsideOut)
41. Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith - A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (ECM)
40. Neurosis - Fires Within Fires (Neurot)
39. Ryley Walker - Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans)
38. Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth (Atlantic)
37. Gorguts - Pleiades' Dust (Season of Mist)
36. Wolvserpent - Aporia:Kala:Ananta (Relapse)
35. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker (Columbia)
34. Angel Olsen - My Woman (Jagjaguwar)
33. Noname - Telefone (Self-Released)
32. Bloodiest - Bloodiest (Relapse)
31. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition (Warp)
30. Anciients - Voice of the Void (Season of Mist)
29. Mondo Drag - The Occultation of Light (RidingEasy)
28. Wolf People - Ruins (Jagjaguwar)
27. Thee Oh Sees - A Weird Exits / An Odd Entrances (Castle Face)
26. Aluk Todolo - VOIX (The Ajna Offensive)
25. Chris Robinson Brotherhood - Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel (Silver Arrow)
24. Brain Tentacles - Brain Tentacles (Relapse)
23. Drive-By Truckers - American Band (ATO)
22. The Silence - Nine Suns, One Morning (Drag City)
21. Camera - Phantom of Liberty (Bureau B)

20. Causa Sui - Return to Sky (El Paraiso)
Much like fellow instrumental rockers Colour Haze, this Danish band has proven themselves to be remarkably consistent throughout the course of their career - studio albums. EP sessions and live releases alike. This latest studio record finds them peeling back a little, at least in terms of length, giving us just five tracks in a comparatively, against past records, brief 45-minutes. Musically, however, this remains the type of desert rooted cosmic jams that frequently belie their running times, culminating in the epic title track that serves as an encapsulation of everything they do best.

19. SubRosa - For This We Fought the Battle of Ages (Profound Lore)
I became an instant fan of this Salt Lake City quintet from my first play of their second record, 2011's No Help for the Mighty Ones. Their unique take on sludge-doom, making tremendous use of violins and three female vocalists, creating a sound that balances the heft with folk-inspired beauty. As good as that was, each of the two subsequent albums upped the ante, with this becoming their (so far) defining statement. Taking inspiration from a century old Russian piece of dystopian fiction gives the band a wider canvas on which to paint their epics, and taking full advantage of every inch to tremendous effect.

18. A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)
Eighteen years after The Love Movement, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg reunited with Jarobi White to bless the world with one more Tribe album that could not have been more perfectly timed, released as it was just three days after the election of Donald Trump. It served as a timely reminded that, yes, the world is an inherently messed up place, but reminding us to keep love and hope alive - as only these dudes can. Featuring appearances by everyone from Kendrick to Yeezus to Elton John to Jack White, this was not just a successful victory lap but a damned classic in its own right. Sadly it also now must stand as a tribute to the sorely missed Phife Dawg, another legend that didn't make it to the other end of a year filled with struggle.

17. Oren Ambarchi - Hubris (Editions Mego)
Although I've heard and enjoyed plenty of his work with other collaborators - including Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley, Jim O'Rourke and Keiji Haino - I had yet to dive into Ambarchi's solo works. This was an apparently great place to dig in, considering how much this one in particular lines up with my tastes.The titular three part suite allows Ambarchi to deep dive into his love for kosmiche via disco and shimmering electronics. But it's the final part that kills me every time, when Ambarchi brings in Ricardo Villalobos, Arto Lindsay and Keith Fullerton Whitman in to bring his vision to spectacular life.

16. Graves at Sea - The Curse That Is (Relapse)
Despite a pair of well-regarded splits and an EP from 2014, it took full-on thirteen years for Portland's Graves at Sea to produce their first full-length album. But, ooh boy, the wait seems to very much have been worth it. Clocking it at 76 minutes, this behemoth drags their lumbering doom through an impressive amount of moods and tones, through thundering riffs and unexpected calm with violins and cellos, all anchored by Nathan Misterek's incredible vocals. Long gestating, but one hell of an end result.

15. Childish Gambino - "Awaken, My Love!" (Glassnote)
In my tracks of the year post, I already spent time talking about how unexpected Childish Gambino's hard swerve into funk was, so let's move on and talk about why this is so successful just beyond genre homage. For me, it was the unexpected emotional connection that helped this land for me. Resonant in ways that his nerd rap never could be, Glover taps into the long line of humanity long buried in funk's DNA - sensuality, issues of social justice, the importance of family and futurism. He's also able to tap into his actor's charisma and sense of humor just enough to keep this lively, each also an essential part of funk's past. Will this stick? Doubtful, Glover's too much of a chameleon to keep this look for long, but I'm glad we even have this.

14. Blood Incantation - Starspawn (Dark Descent)
I was enthusing about this album from the instant the end the epic, 13-minute opening track, "Vitrification of Blood (Part 1)" finished ringing in my ears. This was the kind of death metal I've been waiting for - equal parts epic and ferocious, while sacrificing none of the dirt and guts that made it all so visceral. I went into this pretty much blind, knowing nothing of the Denver band's previous scattered work, based solely on its #3 placement on the Decibel list. I listened to it the next day and knew this was a lock for mine as well. Not that I'm sure I'd ever want to, but this would be where I'd start if I was making a death-prog record.

13. Comet Control - Center of the Maze (Tee Pee)
I was already a fan of these Canadian psych-rockers with their self-titled debut from 2014, but this follow-up pushed me over the edge into full blown, rabid fandom. At the risk of a lazy, hackneyed triangulation this is Pink Floyd as birthed in the desert slabs of California and raised on a steady diet of British shoegaze. "Artificial Light", the ten-minute album closer is a perfect example of how to build cosmic rock to a huge climax and a heady comedown. But don't discount this band's hooks either, they have a surprisingly strong touch with those too - something a lot of stoner rock bands lack.

12. Ulcerate - Shrines of Paralysis (Relapse)
I'm as surprised as you are that two death metal records placed this high on my list, but Ulcerate reflect an entirely different approach to the genre that blew my mind just as deeply as Blood Incantation did. Don't let the technical tag added to their genre descriptor fool you, this isn't dudes perfecting their sound in the back of a Guitar Center to shred all of the life out of music. They are indeed all incredibly talented musicians, without a doubt, but they channel that talent into captivating metal epics that churn through a wide variety of moods, tones and styles. Particularly pay attention to the wide range of drummer Jamie Saint Merat and the knotty guitar work of Michael Hoggard. It's a hell of a noise for just three dudes.

11. Blood Ceremony - Lord of Misrule (Rise Above)
Now that the blood incantation has been performed, we move on to the blood ceremony. Or not, just a neat coincidence of sequencing of albums on my list. Toronto's Blood Ceremony is miles away from the guttural death metal of that Denver group, filtering their traditional doom metal through a dark forest of flute-led heavy folk. It's not everyone's cup of tea, to be certain, but they've perfected their sound for album number four, ramping up the dark folk sound to tremendous effect. It's a little more sinuous and subtle, but once it works into your head and heart it opens up to be their best album yet.

10. Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band - The Rarity of Experience (No Quarter)
In every context I've heard so far throughout his various projects, bands and collaborations, Chris Forsyth's guitar work is instantly hypnotizing and searching, which is also reflective of the meandering types of projects he works with. This 2-CD gives Forsyth and his band plenty of room to stretch out on jams that run the gamut through styles equally inspired by classic guitar slingers like Richard Thompson (whose "Calvary Cross" they cover), the loose jam vibe of the Dead, the groove and drive of '90s kosmische revival and beyond.

9. Ulver - ATGCLVLSSCAP (House of Mythology)
The music of Ulver is constantly evolving and impossible to pin down. Grab any one release from their massive back catalog that stretches all the way back to 1993 and you'd be exposed any one of a number of styles - traditional black metal, ambient, dark electronic, psychedelic pop and nearly any imaginable combination thereof. This was initially recorded live, though apparently very heavily re-recorded and enhanced in the studio later, which was why I'm placing it here. It finds the band falling closer to an experimental drone back this time out, locking into hypnotic grooves and riffs. It seems anyone that encounters Ulver walks away with a fierce favorite, I think this might be mine.

8. Jamila Woods - HEAVN (Closed Sessions)
I always like rooting for the hometown break-outs even when they make that really difficult, I'm looking at you Kanye and Lupe. Yet I'm always looking for new local artists to champion and, unsurprisingly, the most fertile ground right now is Chicago's diverse hip-hop and R&B axis. Two of my favorite from this year, Jamila Woods and Noname (#33), spend their albums dancing up and down that axis. Woods comes from a poetry background, she's the Associate Artistic Director for the group responsible for the Louder Than A Bomb youth poetry slam, which is clear from her lyrics and life affirming approach, despite the heavy subject matter. She's an incredible new talent.

7. Oranssi Pazuzu - Varahtelija (Svart)
I was instantly blown away when I first encountered this Finish psychedelic black metal band, via their 2013 album, Valonielu. Their approach combined so many different types and threads of music that I loved that it was irresistible - the carefully composed cosmic space metal built to epic climaxes and felt absolutely bottomless. I think they've topped it this time, by bringing in even more influence from the unlikely places, namely the repetitive drive of krautrock, the shuffling themes and circular composition of jazz and the chillingly curated soundscapes of ambient. It's the thrilling kind of album that keeps me going.

6. Heron Oblivion - Heron Oblivion (Sub Pop)
We all know the inherent problems and pitfalls in throwing the term "supergroup" around, to the point where it's become pretty meaningless. But if you've been at all a fan of underground psych-rock over the past decade or so, one might be forgiven for being excited by the line-up on offer here and defaulting to that old sawhorse of a descriptor. Heron Oblivion is singer and drummer Meg Baird (Espers), bassist Ethan Miller (Comets On Fire, Howlin' Rain), as well as guitarists Noel Von Harmonson (also Comets On Fire) and Charlie Saufley (Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound). It's a hell of a psych rock journey, with Baird bringing a restrained folk touch to the brimstone guitar burn brought by Harmonson and Saufley.

5. Cavern of Anti-Matter - Void Beats/Invocation Trex (Duophonic)
Although Stereolab remains, sadly, on an indefinite hiatus, we're fortunate enough to continue getting solo projects from folks like Laetitia Sadier and Tim Gane. While the former's work is nice enough, it's this latest project from Gane that has blown a new part in my hair. While there always was a subtle kosmiche and motorik groove throughout much of Stereolab's back catalog, Gane has gone full-on krautrock with this one. Along with drummer Joe Dilworth, synth player Holger Zapf and a handful of guests including Deerhunter's Bradford Cox and Sonic Boom, Gane explore tight, electronic inspired rhythms through a loose and jammy approach that pumps a surprising amount of life and energy into these songs. A great modern day krautrock album.

4. Beyonce - Lemonade (Columbia)
The songs and "visual album" that launched a thousand thinkpieces. I don't feel like I have anything worthwhile to add to the pile, others have undoubtedly had more insightful things to say than I. Beyonce's had better singles than what appear here, but this is, without a doubt, her best full album experience yet - even divorced from the powerful imagery of the visual component. She brings in a luxury yacht full of collaborators and flies through a wide range of styles, yet it all coheres into a powerful experience. At times raw, harrowing, rage-filled, heartbreaking and defiant, rarely has a pop megastar so boldly entered their own psyche and pulled out an album that is so powerful, yet still maintains that widespread appeal.

3. Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book (Self-Released)
Granted, I'm not one that quite fully understands how this whole modern day internet economy works (I don't know how companies like Netflix and Uber can continue to operate with losses in the billions), so I'm still blown away that Chance has emerged as the cultural force he has while literally giving away every note he's recorded. But let's set all that aside for a second and focus on the music itself here, which is as joyously uplifting and charming as Chance himself. He's brought in a huge number of collaborators, but somehow pulled off the incredible feat of stretching to fit his world and vision. The gospel influence runs even deeper than ever, amplifying Chance's spiritual message, yet grounded in the current strains of hip-hop. It's unbelievable how much this kid has already accomplished.

2. Solange - A Seat at the Table (Columbia)
As much as I enjoyed Solange's 2012 EP, True, I never would have imagined that not only would I be placing albums by both Knowles sisters in my Top 5 list just five years later, let alone placing Solange ahead of her big sister yet, here we are. While Beyonce famously blew her familial infidelities to IMAX size rage and catharsis, Solange focuses more on the quieter, more intimately scaled heartbreaks - both as a black woman in modern day America and as a individual struggle through everyday loneliness. Raphael Saadiq, still a criminally underrated musician and producer, brings a touch of futuristic funk to the album that reminds me of Erykah Badu at times. There is just an unfair level of talent running through that Knowles family.

1. David Bowie - Blackstar [] (ISO)
Each of my top three albums of the year spent time at number one in the running list bouncing in my head throughout the year, I was never quite sure just how this final order might shake out. While it may appear that I gave Bowie the nod as a memorial to a legend loss, that's not the case. Quite simply, his was the album that I returned to the most throughout the year, the record that constantly lodged in my head. It would have been a difficult one to wrap my head around without the added context, an unexpected swing to, basically, an avant-garde jazz approach. Quintessential Bowie, throwing us off to the very end. I still don't feel like I've fully exposed all the layers here, between all of the obscure lyrical references and the unexpected composition and structure. There were songs I was nonplussed by after the first few spins, but I kept being dragged back to unlock them all. Yet even then, I was called to return. The Next Day was,if anything - and I don't mean this as a knock, a Bowie comfort album. Blackstar was the album that reminded us all just how goddamned lucky we were to have an artist that never gave up searching.

Nov 28, 2017

2016 Year In Review Part V: The Tracks

Our look back at the year in music, 2016, continues with a list of my 75 favorite tracks...

75. "Gardenia" - Iggy Pop
74. "I Can't Give Everything Away" - David Bowie
73. "A 1000 Times" - Hamilton Leithauser + Rotsam
72. "Shut Up Kiss Me" - Angel Olsen
71. "Hands of Time" - Margo Price
70. "Prayers / Triangles" - Deftones
69. "Lake by the Ocean" - Maxwell
68. "Human Performance" - Parquet Courts
67. "Black America Again" - Common
66. "Joanne" - Lady Gaga
65. "Summer Friends" - Chance the Rapper f. Francis and The Lights & Jeremih
64. "Female Vampire" - Jenny Hval
63. "Atomic Number" - case/lang/veirs
62. "Dis Generation" - A Tribe Called Quest
61. "Fill in the Blank" - Car Seat Headrest
60. "California Kids" - Weezer
59. "Starboy" - The Weeknd f. Daft Punk
58. "I Have Been to the Mountain" - Kevin Morby
57. "The Ship" - Brian Eno
56. "Pain" - LVL UP
55. "The Sound" - The 1975
54. "Sunday Love" - Bat For Lashes
53. "Healthy Moon" - DIIV
52. "1990x" - Maxwell
51. "Untitled 02/06.23.2014" - Kendrick Lamar
50. "Sister" - Angel Olsen
49. "If I Ever Was a Child" - Wilco
48. "Sandcastles" - Beyonce
47. "Troubled Calls" - SubRosa
46. "4th of July 2015 (Sandy)" - Cymbals Eat Guitars
45. "FDT" - YG f. Nipsey Hussle
44. "Hot Tramps" - Beach Slang
43. "I Need You" - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
42. "VRY BLK" - Jamila Woods f. Noname
41. "Untitled 07/2014 - 2016" - Kendrick Lamar
40. "No More Parties in L.A." - Kanye West f. Kendrick Lamar
39. "Drone Bomb Me" - ANOHNI
38. "No Problem" - Chance the Rapper f. 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne
37. "Lite Spots" - Kaytranada
36. "Best To You" - Blood Orange f. Empress Of
35. "Glowed Up" - Kaytranada f. Anderson.Paak
34. "Come Down" - Anderson.Paak
33. "Sorry" - Beyonce
32. "Beast Whip" - Cobalt
31. "Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales" - Car Seat Headrest
30. "High Castle Rock" - Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band
29. "Can't Stop the Feeling" - Justin Timberlake
28. "Keep It Between the Lines" - Sturgill Simpson
27. "Elevator Operator" - Courtney Barnett
26. "Somebody Else" - The 1975
25. "Work" - Rihanna f. Drake
24. "Yesterday" - Noname
23. "Really Doe" - Danny Brown f. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul & Earl Sweatshirt
22. "Black Beatles" - Rae Sremmurd f. Gucci Mane
21. "We The People" - A Tribe Called Quest
20. "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1" - Kanye West f. Kid Cudi & Kelly Price
19. "Million Reasons" - Lady Gaga
18. "Don't Touch My Hair" - Solange
17. "Adore" - Savages
16. "Vice" - Miranda Lambert
15. "Beneath Fields" - Heron Oblivion
14. "E.V.P." - Blood Orange
13. "Ever South" - Drive-By Truckers
12. "Highway Anxiety" - William Tyler
11. "Hold Up" - Beyonce

10. "80s Mercedes" - Maren Morris
Yeah, I was not expecting to love this as much as I do, nor did I expect to really be pleased by Maren Morris in general. On paper it should be something I wouldn't really be drawn to - a young, contemporary country artist (one that is beloved by the modern industry, no less) using 80's touchstones to sing a decidedly pop tune. But, damn, that hook is undeniable

9. "Redbone" - Childish Gambino
Speaking of unexpected... I was not at all prepared for Donald Glover's turn from meme-nerd rapper (I mean, this last album was actually called Because The Internet) to surprisingly believable funk merchant. As high as my doubts were, and believe me they were really high, he really pulls it off. "Redbone", deservedly, managed to hit a relatively high level of mainstream appeal, it's really difficult to deny the soulfully warm embrace of the slinky minimalism and Glover's falsetto (apparently not at all pitch-shifted).

8. "Lazarus" - David Bowie
Given the timing of it's release, Bowie's subsequent death and Tony Visconti's comments about it being a sort of self-epitaph, it's going to be impossible to ever separate this from the end of a legend, but I think it works as one of Bowie's greatest latter day singles even when we attempt to set all that aside. The entire track is a looming shadow, a funeral dirge that somehow also manages to locate the serenity within, note the lyric, "I'll be free / just like that bluebird".

7. "Burn the Witch" - Radiohead
 Not that Radiohead has been anything close to a singles band since the 1990s, but this was them most I've loved a pre-release single by the band in a long, long time. When the Claymation Wicker Man style video was released, I must have watched it about five times in a row - mesmerized by the clipped strings just as much as I was by the visuals. A seeming screed against slogan spouting authoritarians, it made for timely commentary, sure, but it also gave us one of Yorke's more engaging vocals turns in some time.

6. "Cranes in the Sky" - Solange
A lot of attention is, understandably, spent on the fact that Solange is Beyonce's (previously) less successful little sister. Not only is that reductive, it isn't helpful to continually put the two of them on the same page, as Solange's path is drastically different from that of her sister. Solange's is one of moments - the quiet, the intimate, the individual - best exemplified by this moving ode to self-care through those crippling bouts of loneliness. Like many great songs, it's a simple concept rendered with thoughtfulness and color.

5. "Ultralight Beam" - Kanye West f. Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price & Kirk Franklin
Despite multiple appearances on my list of favorite tracks of the year, I found West's Life of Pablo to be an exceptionally flawed album and the first major disappointment of his career. However, "Ultralight Beam" will stand up as one of his best singles, joining an already impressive list. Other than his work as a curator and producer, though, West himself ends up being one of the lesser stars on the track. MVP honors go to Chance's giddy verse, but this is a team effort to give Kanye the heavenly gospel track he's always been aiming for.

4. "Blackstar" - David Bowie
While it was technically released as a standalone single ahead of Bowie's final album, I feel like "Lazarus" did that job better. The sort-of title track would have worked better to be one of those album tracks that blows you away and cements your love for the whole thing. Bowie's longest song since "Station to Station", it's a ten minute avant-garde art rock song that somehow manages to cohesively roll in jazz, electronica, torch ballads, and drum and bass, among many others I'm probably missing. The lyrics feature Bowie at his inscrutable best, filled with possible nods to everything from Elvis Presley to astrophysics. The comparisons to "Station to Station" go beyond length, as Bowie hasn't felt this exploratory since the late '70s.

3. "True Love Waits" - Radiohead
This one wasn't that much of a surprise, since it's been performed by the band since 1995, recorded multiple times before being ditched for various albums and even had a live performance included in a live EP. Still, finally having an official studio recording after 21 years was appreciated, even if the ultimate piano-led arrangement was different from what we may have heard before. It's one of the "prettiest" Radiohead songs ever, though that descriptor rarely applies to this band. I'm tempted to believe that Yorke had to wait for himself to age into this song to do it justice.

2. "You Want It Darker" - Leonard Cohen
No, Leonard, we don't want it any darker. 2016 was dark enough, filled with death, unease, fear, anger and an a steady, unsettling dread. Your death didn't help, but at least you saw fit to grant us one last gift. On its face, the song seems to find you staring death down and accepting your mortality, but as usual, you just couldn't leave it that simple. Your tongue remained firmly in cheek yet ready to bit, not content to drown in sorrow and kicking against the pricks to the very end.

1. "Formation" - Beyonce
Beyond the video's striking imagery, beyond the surprise roll-out, beyond the Red Lobster shout-out, beyond the thousand thinkpieces inspired by it, "Formation" stands as possibly the song we all most needed in our lives in 2016. Though never explicitly political in the lyrics themselves, the entire thing felt like one huge middle finger to the establishment. Which establishment? All of 'em. Backed by a powerful Mike Will beat, Beyonce has, despite her one time alter ego, never sounded this fierce and defiant. I like to think that every play, spin, view and listen helped us all release a little of the pressure that continued to build throughout the year. Which is exactly the kind of music we needed in 2016.

2016 Year In Review Part IV: The Live Albums

Here's my favorite live releases from this year, which includes both contemporary live releases and anthology live releases.

10. Jerry Garcia Band - GarciaLive Volume Seven: Sophie's 11/08/76 (ATO)
One of the nice things that happened in 2016 was the resurrection of the GarciaLive archival live recordings of Jerry Garcia's non-Dead performances from ATO records. Although it had been only a couple years off, it was disappointing not to have a regular scheduled Jerry release to count on. This was the second of the 2016 releases, featuring the Donna and Keith version of the JGB line-up from fall of 1976. A gorgeous "Mission in the Rain", back after a brief dalliance with his man band, and a 22-minute take on "Don't Let Go" are the highlights.

9. Thee Oh Sees - Live in San Francisco (Castle Face)
It had been a long eight years since the last Oh Sees live record, eight years in which quite a lot changed for the band as their sound progressed. This release, as part of the ongoing Castle Face series, captures the band over three nights at The Chapel while they toured for the Mutilator Defeated at Last album. It captures them firing on all cylinders, tearing through their distinct and energetic take on psychedelic garage rock. A must hear for John Dwyer fans.

8. Grateful Dead - July 1978: The Complete Recordings (Rhino)
A twelve-disc set that captures all five shows that the Dead performed in July of 1978, starting out with their extended one set appearance at Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic through to two nights at Red Rocks. The second night at Red Rocks was extracted for the general release, but the entire box is packed with great moments. 1978 was an interesting year for the band, evolving from the 1977 groove era and setting the stage for where the band would grow into the eighties when Brent joined. As always, gorgeous packaging and a must hear for Deadheads.

7. Jerry Garcia & Merle Saunders - GarciaLive Volume Six: Lion's Share 07/05/73 (ATO)
This was the one that restarted the GarciaLive series and oh what a pick it was. This finds Jerry and Merle playing at the Lion's Share just a few short days before the legendary Keystone performances. It features a mysterious trumpet player that remains unidentified, but Merle is absolutely on fire throughout - including the 26 minute segment that evolves from "Merl's Tune" into a perfect jam. Absolutely lovely stuff, it's always appreciated to hear more Jerry and Merle this clearly.

6. Kate Bush - Before the Dawn (Fish People)
It is a massive understatement to note that Kate Bush isn't a huge fan of live performances. After her first tour concluded in 1979, she stayed away from the stage for 35 years. So it was a huge deal when her 22-date residency in London was announced. This three disc set is culled from those performances and structured in three acts, similar to the stage show. The first disc, Act I, was the closest to a standard live performance, featuring a mix of some of her bigger songs from throughout her career. Act II was a performance of the entire Ninth Wave, or side two, of her 1985 classic, Hounds of Love, with some added dialogue and interludes. The final disc, Act III, captures the entire performance of A Sky of Honey, or disc two, from 2005's Aerial, along with two encores. It's a lot to digest, but well worth the time and energy spent.

5. Grateful Dead - Dave's Picks Volume 17: Selland Arena 07/19/74 (Rhino)
This was the first of two stellar picks from Dave during 2016, a fantastic set from the Wall of Sound era, specifically Fresno's Selland Arena on July 19, 1974. It's a terrific era for the Dead, with a jazzy improvisation sound that lessened over the years (though briefly resurrected during parts of the '89-'90 peak). This show has a lot to offer, particularly the half hour "Playing in the Band" that closes the first set and the 45-minute set two run that includes "Weather Report Suite > Jam > Eyes of the World", just gorgeous stuff. And bonus points for Dave including the sometimes divisive "Seastones" performance from Ned Lagin and Phil Lesh.

4. All Them Witches - Live in Brussels (self-released)
This Nashville stoner rock band has never been afraid of releasing their live performances, including virtually every night from various tours. But it's no wonder that this performance from Brussels in March of 2016 was specifically highlighted, as it just might represent the band's first live peak. the band tears through fourteen songs, with half of them lasting well over six minutes, meaning they take plenty of time to lock into various grooves. The setlist leans heavy on the then contemporary Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, but pulls from older releases as well. It's the most crisply recorded they've yet been and this ends up a key milestone in the band's development.

3. Colour Haze - Live Vol. 1 Europe Tournee 2015 (Elektrohasch)
It was about time for another live album from this instrumental stoner rock group from Munich, seeing as it's been eight long years since the excellent two-disc Burg Herzberg Festival was released. This release, also two long discs worth, pulls from various stops during their 2015 European tour with a setlist pulled from all over their catalog. If you've heard Colour Haze before, you'll know how fantastic this likely sounds, as they remain one of the most consistent stoner rock bands in the world. It's heavy and fuzzy, with plenty of room for the band to jam, topped off by the nearly half hour take on the self-titled album's "Peace, Brothers and Sisters".

2. Grateful Dead - Dave's Picks Volume 19: Honolulu 01/23-24/70 (Rhino)
The second of Dave's stellar 2016 picks takes us back to Honolulu for some classic primal dead during the latter days of January in 1970, just weeks before the legendary run at the Fillmore East with the Allmans. While neither are the greatest versions ever, any set that includes BOTH "The Other One" and "Dark Star" is worthwhile in my book. Fans of Pigpen will be happy, particularly with the 38(!) minute "Lovelight". A great one for primal Dead fans.

1. Bob Dylan - The 1966 Live Recordings (Columbia)
What else could take this spot? If the name alone doesn't ring a bell, Dylan's 1966 tour was the infamous one where The Band backed him to strongly divisive crowd reactions all around the world, peaking in England with the now legendary shouts of "Judas!". This 36-disc box set includes every known recording from the tour, including some (very, very) low quality audience recordings to fill in gaps in the U.S., Australia and Sweden. But the rest of the box is taken from either soundboards or professional recorded by various media entities, meaning we get most of it in surprisingly high quality. It's an absolute treasure trove for Dylan obsessives, even when the setlist gets a little stale over multiple shows. One of rock's most notorious tours ever, it's a blessing to be able to experience as much of it as possible.