Darker and lighter reflections: 2016 in music
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The tradition here had been to do a much more formal, organized “Best of [INSERT YEAR HERE]” in this space. But thanks to a server crash and some other annoying life interferences last year, that streak was snapped and readers were spared my thoughts on, say, Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, or Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free.
Life still has its way of being something south of convenient, but servers are back and so is this, but the formality of the exercise is likely retired. After spending a brief-but-all-too-long period as a “Top Five” maven, my distaste for ranking music or anything artistic has only grown as time rolls on. There’s nothing to be gained by me saying definitively that this album was better than that album, unless I either truly believe it or I’m just digging for that slight uptick in readership.
That said, I still have my own taste and opinions, and there was plenty of music released this year worth devouring and breaking down and putting on compilations and playlists for friends. Here’s a taste of it, in no particular order beyond editorial preference.
Black Pistol Fire - Don’t Wake the Riot
I’m starting to recognize patterns in real time. Rather than looking back at the history of music, noticing how this trend replaces that trend every five to seven years, I’m finding that in my own listening, I fall into ruts until one band snaps me out of it and hurls me back into music in general. Last winter, that band was Black Pistol Fire, a duo from Austin via Toronto who are intent on making as much noise as possible within the blues format, and they rewarded that listening with a blazing new record this year.
If Don’t Wake the Riot doesn’t reinvent their sound, it pushes it forward, showing the band taking chances with vintage pedals and keys as new bedrocks on their slashing sound. Whether it’s the demented cowboy blues of “Bad Blood” or the garage screamer “Copperhead Kiss,” they never play it quite the same way twice. Tempos shift, lyrics are spit out either lightning-quick or menacingly slow and every one of those guitar licks, hand claps and cymbal crashes burn themselves to memory. It’s lively and, above all, alive. I was more than grateful to have them slam me back into the present when I found them, and happier still to have another slamming record to add to the pile.
David Bowie - Blackstar
I’ve been fortunate enough to be relatively healthy in my time here, so I can’t imagine having the strength or foresight to realize I was entering the final stages of my life and still remain productive and relevant in that time. But I can’t imagine living David Bowie’s life, either, blowing through genres and styles and defining each one along the way. And this was all in the time he wasn’t exploring one of his other ridiculous talents.
Shortly before he died, he left one last imprint on his musical legacy, the carefully crafted and beautifully timed Blackstar. It’s loaded with jazz experimentations, electronic soundscapes and a overarching theme that is all-too vivid now with his passing. As he laments on the closing “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” he sings:
I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns the prodigal sons
He was staring down his own mortality and he turned it into another piece of art. And like the best of his work, it stands tall above that initial impact and lives beyond time or genre.
Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
Speaking of impressive final acts, Leonard Cohen also braved through failing health to get his last bits of poetry down onto tape, delivered through the gravelly voice that he so warmly grew into through the past two decades.
Again, it’s not just nostalgia that propels this set to such heights. It’s the work itself, the way he croons in his near-jazzy delivery as he declares that:
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
That comes from “Treaty,” but there are dozens of devastating groups of verse to be found through You Want it Darker’s nine songs. Through it all, as he’s leaving the table or turning the other cheek, he’s chronicling a lifetime’s worth of regret and lessons, coming to terms with them and doing what he can to impart some kind of wisdom on whoever might be listening. But there’s also a winking acknowledgement that that’s not how we work. We’ll keep making these same mistakes, but that’s never an excuse to not keep trying to make things right.
Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
As with every Radiohead album, I felt like I just stared at it for a week, like an alien object that landed on my porch and had to be carefully cradled back to the kitchen table for closer inspection. It was subtle and textured and just felt so utterly beyond comprehension. But I kept listening.
And that’s the magic. While not totally unfamiliar, I couldn’t pin down just what made the entire record so enthralling. The strings and the demented message of “Burn the Witch” had me immediately, but so did the haunted, deconstructed nursery rhyme of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Begger Man Thief.” Even “True Love Waits,” which first surfaced circa 2002 on the live I Might Be Wrong felt new.
The beauty of this record is in its minimalism — last explored on The King of Limbs but fleshed out here just enough to give the album a bit more immediacy. Whatever the breakdown, after weeks of listening confused and commanded, it was another victory. Radiohead still feels like a band that came out of nowhere.
The Kills - Ash & Ice
There’s an almost hypnotic quality to every bit of music Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince put out. Call it excellent drum programming or the cutting guitar lines or the way Mosshart’s voice seems to both float above and slice through the rhythm, but every Kills album feels like, if not an event, another eerie chapter in the same book.
They live on these repeated mantras — Doing It To Death or the Hard Hard Habit To Break — that burrow themselves into the subconscious. Even the guitar lines, like the repeated riff on “Impossible Tracks” that bubbles between each lyric, share this same quality. It’s catchy and then it’s obsessive and then it’s been playing on repeat for two hours. Where did the time go? It’s the Kills’ own parlor trick.
Dinosaur Jr. - Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
Since being reconstituted in 2007, Dinosaur Jr. has become one of the more dependable bands in the game. Their live shows are still pulverizing, there’s an energy that’s palpable on stage and on disc and, every three or four years, they will turn out a new set of tunes that somehow stand alone and feel utterly familiar.
J Mascis’ guitar and lyrical approach haven’t changed much since Green Mind in the early 1990s, but his ability to adapt his sound to remain so current and immediate is a wonder. One listen to “Goin’ Down” or “Tiny” and the listener is transported back to long-closed rock clubs on the East Coast, sucked in and transfixed by the sound that helped in part kill the excess of the 1980s.
But this isn’t all template work. The towering “I Walk for Miles” slows down the tempo and stomps through the record. At 5:35, it’s an epic pounding its way through the set, with Lou Barlow and Murph holding down the bottom end while Mascis shreds in the songs second half. It sounds like nothing else and sounds like it could only be Dinosaur Jr., which, again, is what has made this band so compelling for so long.
ONE-OFFS AND ARCHIVAL ALBUMS
Rich Robinson - “The Way Home”
Robinson released his fourth full solo album Flux this year, and it’s again full of the heavy guitars and rich textures that has defined the best of his music. As he has immersed himself into his solo career, he’s emerged freed of his past and happy to embrace what he’s done so well for so long. And on that path, he’s become a much more expressive singer, giving his new music its own character.
But it’s his musicianship and composition skills that will always be his mightiest hammer, and he wields it with a surprising power on “The Way Home,” the closing track to the excellent David Cobb compilation Southern Family. Beginning with an open recording of his solo guitar and slowly joined by gospel organ, he’s eventually joined by a choir that begins to sing with the full force of the church congregation.
Robinson has obviously written for soulful singers before, but to pull this together and so perfectly capture his gospel and Georgia roots was a move I couldn’t have expected. Maybe I should have. He’s always been happy to quietly stand to the side and let the music have center stage.
Jeff Buckley - You And I
Culled from one of his first trips into a recording studio after signing with Columbia, You and I finds Buckley nervously feeling out his new surroundings and his new career, chatting with the engineer and covering the likes of Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, Led Zeppelin and the Smiths, along with an early version of “Grace.” It’s a rare chance to be a true fly on the wall in one of the earliest moments of Buckley’s career, and it’s one more chance to appreciate his gift.
Temple of the Dog - Temple of the Dog (25th Anniversary Edition)
Painstakingly chronicling their only album, jamming the entire thing with alternate mixes, demos and outtakes, the supergroup born out of the grief over Andrew Wood’s loss got another shot in the spotlight with their comprehensive box set.
There’s more about that here, but it bears repeating that the HD mix on the enclosed Blu-Ray disc has a sound that is otherworldly. Even coming out of TV speakers, it’s as if the listener is on the other side of the glass in London Bridge Studios in Seattle, circa 1990.
Mother Love Bone - On Earth As It Is: The Complete Works
Speaking of Andy Wood, his band got the thorough overhaul it’s deserved for so long on its own box set. Its three discs collect the band’s EP Shine and only LP Apple, along with more outtakes, demos and covers. It’s capped by a live take of Temple of the Dog paying tribute to “Stardog Champion” at Pearl Jam’s PJ20 Festival in 2011, and the DVD enclosed puts the video compilation Love Bone Earth Affair back into circulation for the first time since it’s 1993 VHS release.
Father John Misty’s Soundcloud page
In addition to debuting pop ditties like “Real Love Baby,” which sounds at once at home in the coffee house and on a 1970s AM dial, he occasionally posts compilations of his encore stage banter, fictional commercials sending up other popular bands of note and his rejected Pandora mix tape ads. Perhaps the crown jewel, though, is his “Maybe, Sweet One, You Won’t Have Nightmares Tonight,” a demented lullaby taken from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. While he works on a new record to follow up last year’s devastating I Love You, Honeybear, it’s nice to see him having some fun.
MORE RECORDS I ENJOYED TO THIS YEAR
In alphabetical order out of fairness:
The Ballroom Thieves - Deadeye
Luther Dickinson - Blues & Ballads — A Folksinger’s Songbook, Vol. I & II
Led Zeppelin - The Complete BBC Sessions
Nice as Fuck - Nice as F**K
Pearl Jam - Live at Third Man Records
The Record Company - Give it Back to You
The Rolling Stones - Blue and Lonesome
Ty Segall - Emotional Mugger
Shovels & Rope - Little Seeds
Elliott Smith - Heaven Adores You
Warpaint - Heads Up
Wilco - Schmilco
AND A FINAL NOTE
Every year seems to end with the same synopsis — that this was a rough one and we can hope for a better year to come. But this year, specifically, was a drag to the goddamn bitter end. There was a rash of deaths, everyone seemed to have their own personal crises and tragedies and the country itself imploded until — well we know what happened there.
So things have been more bad than good, which is news to no one. Music can be healing and comforting and I spent most of my free time chasing that feeling, going to shows, meeting up with friends and trying to push as much positive energy out there as I could. For all those solitary moments with headphones, the greater memories come from seeing people I care about and slipping away for a couple of hours while some incredible band plies their trade on stage. Or from sending a playlist to a friend, or getting one back, or getting yet another recommendation for some incredible thing.
When music is really good, it brings people together. For the space of a song or the distance of a show, the nonsense fades to black and emotions take over. This year, more than most, this is what I looked for to get me through. And I had plenty of people helping me out along the way looking for something similar. So to all those artists and, more importantly, to all those people in real life, thank you.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org