Alas, 2016 has now drawn to a close, an event which ought to make everyone say “finally, thank God”. Though make no mistake, 2017 could very well be worse; as much damage as Trump has done to our country this year, just imagine what could happen when the man actually holds executive power. From a music perspective, who knows – hard to imagine we’ll lose as many legends as we did this year, though to be frank here all the stars of the 60’s and 70’s are really getting up there aren’t they? Granted, some of these deaths were particularly tragic – Bowie kicking off a week after releasing his best album in decades; Prince passing despite remaining as youthful and busy as ever; Keith Emerson dying by his own hand. Christ, who’s next? (12/8/2016: turns out I didn’t have to wait long – it’s Greg Lake.)
So it’s bittersweet in a sense, but 2016 was really a great year for new music (so long as what.cd wasn’t your primary source), though I say that with my usual disclaimer that I’m not even close to caught up on the year yet. My year end list is going to look a lot different than everyone else’s, mostly because I’ve heard like three of the albums that are mainstays on the yearly Top 50s. So I’m just going to split this up into the stuff I really liked, and then everything else I feel like writing about. And we’ll just call it at that. Rather than prattle on about the respective qualities of all these albums (many of which I’ve already written about on this site…follow the links on the titles if you want to read those), I’ll tackle them from the perspective of time, since a lot of these are from people that have been around the block a few times. I mean, a lot of these acts I’ve been a fan of for over a decade; I turned 30 this year, my son turned 2, I have a daughter on the way…time is marching on. So let’s start:
Underworld – Barbara, Barbara, We Face a Shining Future
I’ve been a fan of Underworld since ’99, then got really into them a few years later. At the time A Hundred Days Off was their most recent album, which I remember the critics not really liking – like most electronic acts, the biggest post-2000 reaction was “remember when these guys used to be good?” So by the time I was really a fan, it felt like their best days were behind them, though a cursory listen to all their albums reveals that wasn’t really the case. By 2016, the critics changed their tune, now just thankful that these guys are still around in any capacity (remember, they were considered old dudes back in ’94, having already produced a decade’s worth of music they’d rather not talk about now), and are no longer comparing every damn thing they do to “Rez” and “Born Slippy”. Well, yeah – as great as those tunes still sound today, they’re still from a bygone era. Barbara, Barbara, We Face a Shining Future, like a lot of UW’s post-Beacoup Fish work, doesn’t really belong to the rave/house scene, but rather something vaguely progressive and electronic. Here the tunes are even less structured than usual, with the band’s new philosophy of “show up and bang it out” shining through; but everything they do on here is totally lush, and with the short runtime this might be the first full-length Underworld album that actually leaves you wanting more. As much as I like the two singles that kick the album off (the opening of “If Rah” still keeps bouncing around in my head), the prettier, more atmospheric stuff that populates the rest is where the money really is. For me the key tracks are “Low Burn” and “Ova Nova”, though “Nylon Strung” still tugs at me in a way that nothing else this year has.
Lemon Demon – Spirit Phone
I feel like I’ve grown up with Neil Cicierega in a way; we’re the same age, and I feel like my sense of humor and taste in music has evolved in essentially the same exact way as his. Of course, he’s spent the last 15 years making animations, cartoons, music, games, and short films, while I’ve just been writing Critter Jams, so I guess he wins there. I knew I found a kindred soul when he posted a stream of Sing to God by Cardiacs on his Tumblr page, and Spirit Phone seems somehow related to that, in a “This is your brain on Cardiacs” sort of way. It’s the first Lemon Demon album in eight years (having your hands in a dozen different projects at any given time will do that) but it’s worth the wait – while past LD albums would generally have a few killer tracks apiece, this one is amazing from start to finish. Song for song I’d put it up against anything this year, though I admit one must have a tolerance for this sort of music. But if you’re not irritated within the first 5 to 10 minutes you’re golden, and you may wind up listening to this on a daily basis like I did for some time.
Knifeworld – Bottled Out of Eden
Speaking of Cardiacs; while the future of that band is sadly in serious doubt right now, Knifeworld are the next best thing, and Bottled Out of Eden is their best album yet. Hypothetically if I were to release a ranked list on the year, this is the album I’d keep budging up in the ranking every time I hear it; as much as I liked it out of the box, there’s so much that gets revealed on each listen, mostly thanks to the eight-piece band that gets fully utilized on every one of these tunes. Like Cardiacs before them, the main standout is the band’s eccentricity; they have that Zappa-like squonk of jagged horns and a tendency to switch things up early and often. They aren’t totally gonzo but there’s a deliberate attempt to “keep it weird”, which makes it all the more striking when things start getting emotional and heavy towards the end of the album. But Kavus and co. are the real deal; not once do I get the sense that they’re yanking anyone’s chain; this is the sort of music they’ve been seeking their whole lives.
Metafive – META
Another impressive notch in the YMO family tree; even as the three members of the group drifted further apart into their own pet projects, Yukihiro Takahashi always seemed to take time to keep the spirit of YMO alive. Metafive originally formed in 2014 as sort of a gimmick – a group of Japanese technopop all-stars assembled together to play a set of classic YT and YMO tunes, the implication being that this is the music that these guys grew up with. Unsurprisingly, the group wound up becoming quite famous, which is cool given that the commercial heyday of many of these guys was over 15 years ago, relative youngster Leo Imai excepted of course. Despite the combined hundred years of experience these guys have (give or take), META sounds very much like a debut album; fresh and packed with ideas, with songs that are very well-structured, despite their surprising technicality. Nearly everything on here sounds like a Cornelius remix, but they pull it all off live with the same precision. Initially I was afraid this would wind up as a better than average pop album that I’d eventually put away, but I’m still floored by this album every time I hear it. Choosing not to put Takahashi front and center has a lot to do with that – nothing against YT, but giving each member equal time and input is a far more interesting approach. The band released an EP later in the year, so hopefully that’s a sign of more music to come.
Sting – 57th and 9th
Sting is sort of the perfect case study on the aging rock star – he’s spent his entire solo career overthinking everything and trying to project sophistication, carefully considering every detail of every project he does, but in the end nothing he does gets received too well outside of Rolling Stone magazine. Sting’s still looking good these days – access to plastic surgery, hair-restoration procedures, and the magic of airbrushing will do that (though there’s something not-quite-right about that cover, isn’t there?). But he’s no doubt aged out of the voice that’s made him famous; he’s gone down an octave and a half, and his voice has this smoky, crackly quality to it that it didn’t have before. Actually he still sounds pretty good, but it’s hard to imagine that once upon a time this was the guy who sang that oft-imitated high note on “Roxanne”. Can he still bring some ruckus? Well, based on the most raucous material on this, his “return to rock” album (did Sting ever rock as a solo artist?), not really, though outside of “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” and “Petrol Head” he doesn’t really try. And 57th and 9th isn’t really a good album, despite the presence of a few decent tunes (“50,000”, “Pretty Young Soldier”), the former of which is on the subject of aging rock stars suddenly kicking the bucket – explicitly it’s about Prince, but more than that it’s about himself and the realization that one day, perhaps one day soon, all those Twitter messages and all-star tributes will be about him.
They Might Be Giants – Phone Power
I nearly forgot about this one since it’s made from the same batch of tunes that produced their two 2015 efforts, Glean and Why? While yes, they’ve gotten a little less goofy and a little more refined over the years, at the end of the day TMBG have been doing essentially the same thing for 34 years now, amassing this…pile of nearly a thousand songs, nearly all under three minutes, mostly following the same kind of structure. As a result every TMBG album tends to invoke some sense of “haven’t I heard this all before?” on first listen, but after the third or fourth more and more of the individual songs begin to stick out, and soon you find yourself spinning it on the daily. Phone Power is a little unique in that it actually seems to be backloaded, which TMBG doesn’t often do – so many of my favorite tunes (“Shape Shifter”, “I’ll Be Haunting You”, “I Wasn’t Listening”, “It Said Something”, “Impossibly New”) are on the 2nd half. As a result maybe I’m overrating this one but right now it feels as strong as anything they’ve done in their career, which is really saying something. The band is on a well-earned break right now, but let’s hope they come back strong soon.
Har Mar Superstar – Best Summer Ever
Turns out the summer wasn’t all that great, but I did get to see Har Mar twice this year so I can’t complain. For all the hype this guy got from ’02 to ’04 it’s kinda cool to see him play these sets with none of his early stuff – as far back as he went was “Tall Boy” and “Almond Joy” from his 2009 album. He’s still a freak, girl…but he’s essentially reinvented himself from the ground up as a Motown-style R&B singer, with the not-exactly-subtle subtext that these records could’ve been recorded fifty years ago. Best Summer Ever is a little more modern than Bye Bye 17 was, but not by much – “Youth Without Love” has that LCD-style 80’s retro atmosphere, and “It Was Only Dancing (Sex)” sounds like Moroder’s 70’s…but other than that there’s a very old-fashioned sensibility about it. In particular “How Did I Get Through The Day?” has classic written all over it; here it’s a bit muffled and crackly on purpose, but man is it a powerhouse live.
Tim Heidecker – In Glendale
This is one of those albums destined to not be taken seriously; Tim Heidecker is mostly known as a comedian, the sort who relies on you not knowing what the joke is – even when he’s performing as “himself” he always seems to be in some sort of character. So it’s only natural that most of the reception to this disc was picking apart what is and isn’t supposed to be funny, which is all the more tricky given how sinister and strange the album randomly gets (“I Dare You To Watch Me Sleep”, “Ghost In My Bed”). Truth be told, it’s mostly the personal thoughts of a now 40-year old, settled-down comedian – songs about buying houses (“Central Air”), bad hangovers (“Work From Home”), worrying about the future (“When the Money Runs Out”), and wondering whatever happened to those people you used to know (“Good Looking Babies”). One song opens with the line “I got a baby now/Don’t ask how/It just happens after a while” (amusingly titled “Cleaning Up the Dog Shit”). Given the obtuse and deeply bizarre nature of almost everything Tim Heidecker does, the fact that this album is so introspective and professionally done is sort of a shock; he is the sort who always seems several layers of irony deep, but here you have a genuinely new angle at the man. I’d hesitate to rank it amongst the best of the year, but like the two Heidecker & Wood albums before it, it does scratch a certain itch – those who dig the White Pepper side of Ween may very much enjoy this.
Avalanches – Wildflower
It’s impossible to talk about this album without also talking about Since I Left You, released yes, SIXTEEN YEARS AGO, leaving them as one of history’s great one-and-done bands – only they never went away nor broke up; they still did some live dates, released a few mixtapes, contributed some soundtrack material, and kept frustratingly teasing Avalanches Album Number 2. It got to the point where even the diehards admitted it was probably never happening, but alas – like new albums by My Bloody Valentine, David Bowie, Daft Punk, and Aphex Twin, somehow it’s really here, you can hold it in your hands and everything. Was it worth the wait? Well…perhaps nothing is worth that long a wait, but also yes – I’ll even stick my neck out and say I like it more than Since I Left You, simply because the tunes are more fun and easier to remember. There’s some sort of flower power vibe going through this thing; it almost feels like a relic of the 60’s (and in some ways, it actually is), but with the sort of density and richness that nothing from the 60’s could have. Great stuff, and I’m sure I’ll be writing more about it later.
By the way, what’s going to be the big “comeback you thought you’d never see” of 2017? Seems to happen on a yearly basis – my thought is either Neutral Milk Hotel or the Stone Roses.
Dean Ween Group – The Deaner Album
Speaking of comebacks, Ween finally got back together to play a number of shows this year, something we all kinda knew was going to happen eventually – for whatever Gene’s issues were with the Ween lifestyle, the simple truth is that Ween is bigger than Gene and Dean, by a rather large factor. While Aaron Freeman’s solo album was a deliberate attempt to get away from Ween, the title of this one makes it clear; it’s a half-Ween album, designed to sell to the group’s rather large fanbase. And why the hell not? Those fans are feeling rather starved right now, and The Deaner Album is familiar enough. More rock and the singing ain’t quite as good, but Mickey can still write good tunes in a lot of different genres, and there are several songs I’d love to hear in a Ween setlist – “Mercedes Benz”, “Tammy”, “Bundle of Joy”, maybe a few others. But there’s one I’m particularly interested in, called “Gum”, which Dean claims “doesn’t even rank in my top hundred songs we’ve wrote for the record” – a full-on resurgence of brown-era Ween, and stupid and irritating as anything you could name from the band’s past (Dean compared it to “Candi”, the one song everyone complained about on Chocolate & Cheese). It’s not unusual for an artist with a 30-year career to take a look back, but here Dean seems to be saying, “remember when we totally sucked?” That’s exactly what I dig about it, too – Ween are pretty cool in that they still play the dumb, immature stuff that most groups would be perfectly happy to bury, because as good as their songwriting and playing got, a song like “You Fucked Up” still represents what the band is all about.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
And oh yeah, there was this one. I listened to it, I liked it, I don’t have much to say about it.
Albums that are probably really great that I simply haven’t spent enough time with or gotten around to:
Glass Hammer, Motorpsycho, Van Der Graaf Generator (I hope!), quite a few by Vektroid, David Bowie (sorry!!), Swans, Kendrick Lamar, Melt Yourself Down, Marillion, Eluvium, Pet Shop Boys, Beyonce, Big Big Train, Steven Wilson, Joanna Wang, Kansas (really??), and last but not least, Autechre’s 5-disc extravaganza..Christ I missed a lot didn’t I?