2016 was a terrible year for music. Then again, 2016 was a great year for music.
Does that seem like some bizarre form of doublespeak? Hold up; hear me out. After all, the first thing we might ponder as we look back on the last year in popular music are the artists who’ve passed on: Bowie. Prince. Leonard Cohen. Losing one would have been bad enough, but to see them all gone within months of each other comes across as a cruel cosmic joke. And while those names might have grabbed the biggest headlines, I’m sure we can all pick out a dozen other creators who’ll be missed immensely. For me, that would include Greg Lake, Phife Dawg, Sharon Jones, Alphonse Mouzon, and Dave Swarbrick, but, again, those names are just barely scratching the surface.
That’s the gloomy side of the music world circa 2016, then. And where’s the positive stuff? It’s in the tunes, man! The year was full up to the brim with wonderful sounds. In fact, this post started out as a standard 10 item list. As I started to dig into the albums, though, I realized that there was clearly too much good stuff that deserved recognition. So, boom, you get twice the list for the same low, low price. Hey, who loves ya, baby?
In fact, this year was so good that new releases from two of my all-time favorite artists couldn’t even crack the rankings. Sorry, Wilco. You get an honorable mention, though. Sorry, Radiohead. You get…uh…hey, maybe try harder next time, okay? I also know that I’m leaving behind some stuff I missed out on entirely; I imagine that new releases from Mitski, Solange, and King Crimson might have reserved their spots if I’d managed to pick up copies. but I can’t make everybody’s dreams come true all at once. Only 20 dreams coming true today, I’m afraid.
I’ve also noted that some of the albums on my list aren’t really showing up on other ‘best of the year’ lists. Sure, that might say more about my tastes than I’m hoping (okay, okay, that’s almost certainly the case), but I think it also points to the fact that there was a bumper crop of tasty music this year. So, here: sit down at the table and dig deep!
- Wilco – “Schmilco“: Oh, wait, you thought that was some kind of generic ‘honorable mention’? Nope, they can actually put this one on their CV! You’re welcome, Wilco. Anyway, what’s not to like here? Just another killer set of songs from Jeff Tweedy and company, though with a little more Nels Cline it probably would have cracked the Top 20. This is very important to remember: you can always have more Nels Cline.
- John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – “Live in 1967 – Volume 2“: My favorite archival release of the year. The sound quality is a little iffy, but Peter Green’s solos are absolutely blistering. A peak performance from one of the greatest electric blues guitarists ever.
- Diarrhea Planet – “Turn To Gold“: Lively. Brash. Anthemic. Never backing off the rock.
- Mary Halvorson Octet – “Away With You“: One spot on the Top 20 came down to a tight contest between this release and another strong showing from guitarist Mary Halvorson. I’m going in the other direction, but this album sounds incredible. Wind instruments running roughshod over your ears. Masterful percussion work from Ches Smith. And, of course, Halvorson’s weird-ass guitar lines and atmospheric washes.
- King – “We Are King“: When I had to cut the list down to 20, this was the last album out, so you can kinda think of “We Are King” as #21. One of the most transfixing soundscapes you’re liable to find on record in 2016. There’s an icy confidence to the backing tracks, but the songs also sound expansive, lush, and psychedelic. It’s really all about those vocal arrangements, though. I mean, damn. Ultimately, it may have missed the main event because the mood is almost too steady for my tastes. Then again, “The Greatest” and “Supernatural” are two of my favorite tracks of the year, so whatever.
Susan Tedeschi is certainly a hell of a vocalist, and the band of musicians assembled here have an easy, organic rapport that makes it all sound like a piece of cake. It definitely ain't a piece of cake, especially when you're crossing genre lines and blending sounds together at the level you're hearing on this album. But I gotta be real: this is the Derek Trucks Six String Show when it's pumpin' through my headphones. The guy knows when to lay back a bit and add juuuuust the right touches that will tie a song together. And when it's solo time? Chills up and down the spine. He's got such a deft touch on slide, and he's such a smart and passionate player, that every little nuance feels like it's coming from a real and meaningful place. And, well, it probably is. Trucks doesn't strike me as someone who digs artifice and staging, and that's communicated loud and clear in his musicianship. Just good ol' fashioned authentic connection with the audience via a set of wires wiggling through magnetic fields. Crazy, huh?
The kind of record that lets you know where it stands immediately. The first time I gave this a spin, it was obvious that I'd be onbaord as soon as the first song, "Welcome To Your Life," got up and running. The sound is fun and bouncy, with some nice instrumental touches that reveal themselves upon repeated listening. Combine that with track after track filled with strong hooks and you might be tempted to look at this as a light pop album. There's a nice tension with the lyrical content, though, which is a bit more measured; there are doubts, uncertainties, and even a little melancholia to be found there. Still, the overall mood is celebratory and the energy remains upbeat. One comparison that bounces through my head every now and then when I listen is a keys-heavy, not-so-dark, earnest version of the Pixies, but then again that encapsulation sounds pretty damn un-Pixies-y and so, I guess, does Grouplove. They've got their own thing going on and it's a great thing to be witness to.
Because what would the year be without some kind of tribute to ECM Records? Not that they deserve a party for any big milestone this year or anything. Just the standard dedication to pushing the jazz vanguard further and further into unknown territory. No biggie. On the other hand, it could simply come down to the fact that I'm a fool for the label's magnificent recording quality. That seems especially notable when you're dealing with the 18 piece behemoth that bassist and composer Formanek has assembled here. The sound field is never cluttered, though. The beauty of these pieces is that they're not overstuffed. Everything is intricately pieced together, even when the pace quickens and the sonic maelstrom gets denser. That takes guts when Formanek has so much talent at his disposal and it deserves a round of applause. There's breathing room aplenty on this album; it prevents the ears from getting too fatigued while still keeping your brain involved in the aural puzzle. The players are all so accomplished and the feeling of ensemble so strong that it's nearly impossible to highlight any one performance, but Mary Halvorson's angular, buzzy guitar solo in the fifth section of the "Exoskeleton" suite is a personal favorite.
If, twelve months ago, you'd have asked me, "Hey, how many country albums do you think you're going to include in your favorite twenty albums of the year?" I'd probably have responded somewhere along the lines of "Zero, and screw you for implying otherwise." But here we are, and I have no reservations about Margo Price's inclusion. The songwriting on "Midwest Farmer's Daughter" is the key; the structures and arrangements call to mind the historic country masters who put today's radio-friendly stuff to shame, while Price provides lyrics that feel simultaneously modern and mindful of tradition. These hard luck stories are harder than most, a point which is made clear when you zero in on the way Price approaches her delivery. It'd all go to waste, though, without a sympathetic group of musicians supporting Price's fiery, defiant vocals. Luckily, that's exactly what we get, and it all sticks together in a way that feels assured without being overpolished.
I dedicated one of our recent lists of the Top 30 Most Expensive Items Sold in the Discogs marketplace to the story of Vashti Bunyan. The details of Bunyan's life are remarkable, but the super-short version is that she walked away from the music world after releasing her first solo album to little acclaim. Listeners finally caught up to her unique vision, and a follow-up album was eventually released. In the meantime, though, 35 years had elapsed. Vashti Bunyan's extended recording hiatus is extraordinary; however, consider also the case of Emitt Rhodes. Rhodes was the creative force behind '60s psych poppers The Merry-Go-Round, best remembered (well, by me, at least) for inclusion on the expanded version of the Nuggets compilation. The band's songs, written by Rhodes, would later be covered by artists including The Bangles, Linda Ronstadt, and Fairport Convention. After The Merry-Go-Round failed to make an impact on the charts, Rhodes launched his solo career in 1970 with his self-titled debut, written and performed entirely on his own and recorded in a modest home studio. He kept at it, releasing a handful of solo albums that were crafted completely under his control, before growing frustrated and calling it quits with "Farwell To Paradise" in 1973. And that was the last we ever heard from Emitt Rhodes. Oh, right, until "Rainbow Ends" was released early in 2016. Yep, that's 43 years between albums. You'd never know once you fire this sucker up, though. This is the work of an accomplished songwriter: each track is a complete story, every note expertly placed without sounding stuffy or constrained. Lyrically, you're looking at a lot of bittersweet reflection on what it means to love and be loved. Rhodes is able to find the sweet spot between weariness of the world and a dogged romanticism, which lends a definite gravitas that is difficult to resist. Oh, also, there's lead guitar from Nels Cline on "I Can't Tell My Heart," which starts as a somber piano ballad only to morph into, well, into ClineTime. With a little more of that, maybe this album would have climbed my rankings a bit higher. Reminder: you can always have more Nels Cline.
A secret confession: there are times where I don't really want to be bothered with lyrics all that much. I'm not very adept at interpretation, and I've never been able to reliably store the words in my brain, even when it comes to my favorite songwriters. So every now and then I embrace the opportunity to take in vocalizations that can be appreciated as if they were any other instrument. This is a longwinded way of salvaging my cred when I shrug my shoulders and admit that I have no idea what Bombino's songs are about, as he's singing in Tamasheq. That's actually kind of a shame, as there are apparently some deeper political connotations for the Tuareg people that I'm missing here, and I certainly respect artists who are taking a stance against oppression. At the same time, these songs just flat-out cook regardless of what they might be about. And while Bombino's voice is indeed a beautiful instrument, it's the mesmeric stew of guitars and the bubbling percussion swirling around the vocals that really give this album some bite. I can't say for sure that this is my favorite guitar album from Niger, but it's gotta be pretty dang high on the list.
Another secret confession: I tend to be kinda straight-laced and, uh, extremely sober. And yet, many of my favorite artists and albums are closely associated with altered states of consciousness. I guess even the most dedicated teetotaler/abstainer would need to make a concerted effort to avoid drug-fueled musicians (unless you're straight edge, I guess, but no thanks), but, like, I'm really into "Electric Ladyland" and "Station To Station," man! REALLY INTO THEM. I'm also really into "Atrocity Exhibition" despite the fact that it is a serious damn trip. Or, hell, maybe it's because of that. The loping rhythms and dubbed out echoes of opener "Downward Spiral," the fuzzy sampling and disorienting brass backing "Lost," the vocal manipulations of "White Lines"...it's a heady listen. Brown's delivery is perfect, too: his voice isn't exactly smooth, but it's confident and edgy, a great compliment to his debauched rhymes. Plus that doesn't even account for B-Real's guest spot on "Get Hi" and you know that dude is a space cadet.
The moment you've been waiting for. After all, a Nels Cline solo album must surely contain sufficient quantities of Nels Cline? HAH! No! Wrong! How many times do I have to remind you: YOU CAN ALWAYS HAVE MORE NELS CLINE! Now, I'll be the first to admit that there's a lot of Nels Cline here. Nearly 90 minutes of Nels Cline, to be slightly more precise. However, this is a real oddity in the Nels Cline cannon (the Clinennon, if you will). There's very little skronky guitar to be found. The material leans heavily toward jazz standards, as opposed to the preponderance of self-penned avant garde pieces that you'd be likely to find on other Cline albums. And where you might normally expect a tightly-bunched group of jazzers surrounding the celebrated fretmaster, this album trades that tactic in for so many guest musicians I can't even be bothered to count 'em all. The end result is a batch of songs that cover a wide expanse of sonic terrain. "Introduction/Diaphanous" starts things off in a starkly beautiful place, whereas "Cry, Want" keeps the minimalism but adds an unnerving tension. "Lady Gabor" is full of the kind of delay and pitch manipulations that are so central to Cline's guitarwork, but those effects-based excursions are juxtaposed against assorted brass and wind instruments plus harp work from Zeena Parkins. The balance is just right for keeping the listener engaged. Hell, there's even an understated cover of "Snare, Girl," and, believe me, you haven't lived until you've heard Sonic Youth compositions as interpreted by a sighing string section. Cline's weapon of choice for this release seems to be his skill as an arranger. That turns out to make for a fascinating and engrossing listen, even if one or two or eighteen additional white-knuckle electric guitar solos would always be welcome (seeing as how, y'know, you can always have more Nels Cline).
I'm not the world's foremost Alejandro Escovedo expert or anything, but I do have a sizable chunk of his solo catalog in my collection. I've got to admit, though, that I've never quite been able to enjoy his albums as much as I might expect. That's nothing against Mr. Escovedo; he's a razor-sharp lyricist, and his vocal delivery is always raw and emotional. I often find that his recorded output tends to sound a little too subdued, though. Well, throw that out the damn window. "Burn Something Beautiful," his latest release, is exactly what I've been waiting for. There's something primal about the pounding rhythms and sludgy guitars that greet your ears repeatedly over the course of the album, as on "Horizontal," "Beauty Of Your Smile," and "Luna De Miel." It's such an effective sound that it makes alternate approaches that appear at exactly the right moment, like "Suit Of Lights" in all its lovely glory, or the smoking crater that is "Redemption Blues," pop out that much more vividly. And even when things get pretty, there are just enough rough edges to keep the songs from sounding sedate. It's that grit that makes every last song here sound free and unencumbered. It's the grit that makes "Burn Something Beautiful" stand out as one of Escovedo's finest moments.
At the risk of sounding like a sophomore trying to come to terms with their first art appreciation class: like, what's the point of genre, man? That's only some artificial construct to keep us in our own little cubby holes! Throw off the oppressive shackles of music segregation! TAKE THE BLUE PILL, MAN, TAKE THE BLUE PILL! Ahem. Really, though: how do you classify "Lola"? Is it country? There is an awful lot of twang on this album, but not really. Folk? Might be dippin' its toes in those waters, but there's a quickness of the pulse here that doesn't exactly fit. Pop? Carrie Rodriguez has a voice that would sound right at home near the top of the charts, and you will certainly find hooks aplenty on "Lola," but it's also a challenging listen in some significant ways. Jazz? World music? Rock? Hey, it's all in there, but...it's...I'll tell you what: just listen to the damn record, okay? This is one that kept quietly sneaking up my rankings. Every time I gave it a spin, the songs felt that much more immediate. The initial draw for me was guitarist Bill Frisell, and he makes significant contributions to the shimmering sound of the record, but Rodriguez is the star of this show, without a doubt. Her vocals are warm and true. You can hear her personal investment in what she's singing, whichever language she happens to be focusing on; the record is bilingual, splitting time between English and Spanish tracks, and even sometimes freely switching within a single song as on "Que Manera De Perder" (a gorgeous duet with Luke Jacobs). The songs are a celebration of what it means to live in multiple worlds at the same time. Rodriguez is steadfast in embracing her cultural heritage while still making a name for herself in modern America, and you can't help but walk away with a respect for her struggle and her resolve. In short, this is a sweet-sounding wakeup call. We all could have used a lot more art like that in 2016.
While I'm on the subject of albums that snuck up on me, let's talk about "Here." When I first started drafting up this list, I'd listened to this record a couple of times but nothing had really stuck. To be honest, it wasn't even in the running at that stage. But I wanted to give everything an honest chance, so I put "Here" on for another play. Then another. And then I could. Not. Stop. Listening! Something clicked and the songs grabbed hold of me and would not let go. The guitar solos made my ears perk up every time. The vocal harmonies were lush and lively. What was wrong with my initial assessment? I think I was expecting something a little harder-edged, something slightly rougher; that would have been in keeping with my prior exposure to Teenage Fanclub a la Bandwagonesque. Hey, why not set your expectations based on one of the great records of 1991? Bands grow up, though. What "Here" might lack in immediacy it more than makes up for via songcraft and sneakily hummable hooks. 25 years later, these guys aren't merely competing against their own glory days. They're expanding the kind of sounds that you'll find in their wheelhouse. "I'm In Love," "The Darkest Part Of The Night" and "It's A Sign" are personal highlights, but "Here" is a consistent treat from start to finish once you get inside its grooves.
One year ago I was singing the praises of Chris Forsyth as my favorite musical discovery of 2015. In 2016 he released what will probably go down in my book as THE great guitar record of the year. I'm not sure that I can explain what's going on here other than just admitting that this is the kind of music I want blaring from my sound system. It's still a treat to hear electric guitar as smart and capable as Forsyth's: his lead lines weave and whir, finding freedom between the pounding rhythms that serve as the Solar Motel Band's bedrock. There are some really killer synth textures all over "The Rarity Of Experience," and to add a new wrinkle to the band's sound we get vocals on select tracks. Indeed, spoken word contributions help to propel a cover of Richard Thompson's "The Calvary Cross" which manages to be faithful to the original while still exploring new aural territory. Really, though, the fretwork is the thing and it is stunning. Bless you, Chris Forsyth. You're making at least one guitar nerd's dreams come true, and I hope the rest of 'em get onboard before long.
It's not an easy thing, to rock, to roll. It takes a lot out of a person. So you'd expect, after more than 50 years of sex, drugs, and musical trailblazing, that Iggy Pop would now be spent. Well, you can take your concern about the vitality of rock's resident near-septuagenerian hellraiser and you can shove it into your goddamned...ah, sorry, I started channeling Iggy for a second. Nope, he's still got it. He's still got all of it. I mean, here he is, releasing one of the most legitimately hot-blooded records of the year. This isn't a bunch of studio trickery backing up a pretender. This is a man, just as vital as ever, laying his soul on the line. Sure, the production assist from Josh Homme makes a difference, and there are monster performances from Homme and the musical co-conspirators he's wrangled together. But the whole thing hinges on Iggy's songs, on his voice, on his conviction. Never doubt that he's got that in spades. Never doubt that he'll be bringing the heat up until the day the rock catches up with him. I can promise you that day will only come when he's damned good and ready.
I'm not sure that I can summarize this record any better than I did when I tabbed it as the release that best summed up the past year for me. Seriously, go read that post to see more about Tribe's latest (as well as picks from the rest of the Discogs team). What I can say is that this is another album that really didn't reveal itself fully until I gave it a lot of dedicated listening. I think there's still probably a lot I'm missing, to be honest. The production work is so full that new layers are apparent with every listen [PS: find a copy of the credits to marvel at the bonkers samples, including contributions from prog acts like Can and Gentle Giant]. And the rhymes? Well, the assembled cast of MCs are so witty and agile that the lyrical subtleties might take years to fully appreciate. From Phife and Tip to returning original ATCQer Jarobi, and whether the spotlight is on old-school Tribe collaborators (Busta Rhymes, Consequence) or those getting their first crack at working with the legendary group (Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000), it's muscular verse after muscular verse: steady, cool, self-assured, and damn near unbeatable. The presence of tracks like "We The People..." and "The Killing Season" also gives the album a moral heft that, hopefully, points the way forward for more artists in the year to come. Phife's loss seems especially painful in light of his liveliness on this record, and that hits doubly hard since it also brings the end of A Tribe Called Quest. But, man, what a swan song.
It's more than 40 minutes long. It transitions seamlessly from beginning to end. Themes include the endless void of space and the perils of cybernetic consciousness. Is it a Neil deGrasse Tyson lecture? Well, if you hadn't already guessed, the answer is "No. Not even close. I'm obviously talking about the whacked-out slice of psych perfection that is 'Nonagon Infinity.' C'mon now!" After all, I don't suppose that Neil's speeches also frequently diverge into topics that include villainous crocodiles and big-ass locomotives. King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard throw all that and more into this record, and it's maybe the most immersive listen in all of 2016. I mean, I normally like to take in an album all at once and come to terms with it as the fundamental unit of listening instead of breaking the whole up into constituent songs. Here's, it's all but impossible to attempt any other approach. Musical themes emerge, slide back under the surface, and bring themselves back to the fore from track to track. The pulse of the thing is insistent, bringing the rhythms of old school krautrock masters to mind. Novel washes of sound are identifiable, sure, and that keeps the listener involved and hungry for more, but those textural shifts seem more like the inevitable evolution of the album as a whole as opposed to a surprise for effect. Moments may stand out as particularly engaging; you might even be able to extract some of the material and enjoy it on its own. For my money, though, it's much better to kick back and encounter "Nonagon Infinity" the way you would a discussion on wormholes or humanity's destiny among the stars: turn on, tune in, and drop far fuckin' out.
At this point, Esperanza Spalding is obviously not an unknown quantity. After all, say what you will about the Grammy Awards [side note: seriously, say whatever you want about 'em, I definitely won't stop you], but you don't walk away with one of those shiny gold gramophones without at least a little name recognition on your side. So it is my secret shame that this is my first exposure to Ms. Spalding. Now, I absolutely walked into my listening experience here with a set of expectations. But it turned out that I was ill-prepared for what I was about to hear. The biggest surprise was not her nimble basswork. Her instrumental prowess is off-the-charts incredible, sure, but I was expecting that to be true. It's not even her chops as a composer and lyricist that I found so astonishing; if you'd told me she was doing those things at a high level before I'd given "Emily's D+Evolution" a spin, I'd have believed you. No, the most shocking revelation for me is that Esperanza Spalding has a golden set of pipes. She can sing like you would not believe. Or, at least, like I would not have believed. There are several moments here, most notably on "One," where her phrasing and melodic arc elide and catch just the right light that I swear I'm staring straight at the ghost of Joni Mitchell's voice. That's some pretty sweet company to be in. That she can do everything she does, at such a high level, all at the same time, and that these preternatural talents have coalesced in one person; that is perhaps even more surprising than anything else I take away from Spalding's jazz-prog-soul-pop-kitchen-sink epic. Even if this isn't your introduction to her talent, I think you've got to admit that "Emily's D+Evolution" is a bold work and that it sets a course of continued accomplishment.
No matter what I try to articulate in this space, I think it's fated to come up short compared to the reaction I have when I actually listen to "Adore Life." That experience is visceral and relentless. The sense of atmosphere that Savages establish here is all-consuming, and that can make critical appraisal particularly elusive. That's not to say that dynamic capabilities are lost; it's just that, even when the volume drops a bit, as on "Adore" or "Mechanics," there remains a sense of emotional strain that is essentially unshakeable. Plus, the group operates not so much as a collective of discrete individuals as it does a sixteen-limbed organism dedicated to strident auditory resistance. Where my ear might normally try to pick out a guitar riff or a bass part, the sound here melds together even though the recording quality gives those pieces sufficient territory for their own sonic niches. You see what I'm up against? Don't let all my pretty little words, or the absence of 'em, stop you: if you haven't yet given your attention over to "Adore Life," grit your teeth, clench your fists, and let your spirit get ready to push back against the world.
It's always tricky business trying to pin some sort of thematic unity on the artistic accomplishments of a given year. The world's musicians are obviously a product of their time, of whatever circumstances we all share as human beings, and there are probably going to be particular recording trends that will pop up here and there. Being so bold as to proclaim "2016 was THIS!" or "State of the music industry circa now: INSERT OPINION!" is bound to ultimately ring a bit hollow, though.
Still, in looking over this collection of favorites, I find it interesting that the results are a lot less dark and melodramatic then I expected at the outset of the project. Considering all the ways in which 2016 was a big ol' shit show, I thought the best albums of the year would reflect the terrible state of our planet in some pretty dreary (but listenable!) ways. For the most part, that doesn't really seem to be the case.
However, the gloom on this list is also a bit top-heavy. Starting with "Adore Life", these top four slots are going to be a little rough, and I think that reaches a zenith (or nadir, I guess, depending on your perspective) here at #3. That's not too surprising given what we've been hearing from Nick Cave over the past going-on-40 years. The guy has never been attracted to the sunny side of life.
This is something else, though. "Skeleton Tree" is a very direct confrontation with mortality. Granted, we see that every now and then in popular music. An artist deals with their own impending demise (more on this in a bit), or even that of a fallen comrade, and the audience will be inextricably drawn in by a recording that is emotional, bare. An artist loses a child? That seems too personal, almost. We flinch at the thought that this might be how they confront their loss, at the notion that we might also be forced to confront their loss. That's too harrowing. That's too haunting. The dread is sure to be oppressive.
This particular variety of grief is exactly what Cave has preserved here, though, as his 15 year old son Arthur passed unexpectedly during sessions for "Skeleton Tree." The result is inarguably gripping. At the emotional core of the album you've got one gut punch after another: "Girl In Amber," to my ears the most fraught song on the album, followed by "Magneto," "Anthrocene," and "I Need You." This is about as heart-wrenching as music gets, folks. But it's heart-wrenching in an indirect way. These aren't songs about Arthur, at least not on the surface. Instead, it's all emotional wallop, all shock and coping, details of the effect instead of the event. These aren't exploitative songs, nor are they staid; they're raw, personal, transfixing. You get the sense that this might possibly be the very method by which Cave is processing loss.
But Nick Cave, as always, is tricky to pin down. Don't forget the pair of songs that lead off the album and the pair that close things out. "Jesus Alone" is perched between the light and the dark, I think, a foreboding storm cloud on the horizon as things begin. That's followed by "Rings Of Saturn," all incomprehensible loveliness and twinkling keys. It makes the four songs that follow hit that much harder, sure, but at the end of the album you've got "Distant Sky," which very nearly seems to float between the ears, and the title track to close things out. "Skeleton Tree" the song ensures that "Skeleton Tree" the album is not a merciless assault on the psyche of the listener; there's hope to be found between the gentle percussive swing and the sweet piano melody. Even in the darkest musical hour of 2016 we're reminded that we're all still here together, remembering those we've lost and doing our best to take it one day at a time until we're back on our feet.
clipping. is, without a doubt, the biggest revelation of the year for me. 12 months ago I had never heard a peep about 'em. To be honest, I don't even know if they were a thing 12 months ago, if they were even releasing music. And I could look that up real quick and pretend like I know what I'm talking about but I actually dig the mystery. Here's what I do know about clipping.: the main vocal talent, Daveed Diggs, is perhaps best known for his role in the original cast of Broadway blockbuster Hamilton. Even that little bit feels like too much. It's as if that single piece of information is in danger of shattering the illusion of intrigue. I really just want to process this album in a vacuum, free from anything except the hazy sketch of a world that unfurls over a lean 37 minutes. And, yes, there is a world here, or to be more precise, worlds: this is a rough concept album centering on interstellar struggle. After a couple initial spins I was drawing connections to pieces with a similar 'sci-fi by way of hip-hop' theme, like Deltron 3030. The more I listen to "Splendor & Misery," though, the more I appreciate clipping. for the territory they're staking out for themselves. There is a concept here, sure, but the story never gets in the way of the storytelling. The terrain is intergalactic but the lyrics stay grounded due to an innate humanity. It's also important to remember that you can tell a pretty convincing tale through sound alone, and the sonic landscape behind Diggs is masterful, an impressionistic set of scrapes, buzzes, clacks and haywire machinery. The soundtrack plays out as a perfect technological juxtaposition against the more organic concerns of the verse. Taken together, it all serves to ratchet up the intensity even (or especially) when the decibel level is low.
Could there be a more perfect microcosm of what 2016 meant to me as a music fan? Those dueling reactions to 2016 that I pointed out at the top of this post, the loss balanced against the sustained musical quality, are encapsulated here more succinctly and believably than I'd even imagine would be possible.
The sense of loss, of course, accompanies Bowie's sudden passing just after "Blackstar" was released to the public. The entire world seemed to be celebrating David Bowie Day on Friday, January 8. It was his birthday, sure, and it seemed appropriate to marvel at a career littered with highlights. But I was astonished that we were also receiving an artful new set of songs from a creator who simply refused to stay put. That was Bowie, restless as ever. And then, before a full 48 hours had even passed, the news came over: David was gone. Restless no longer. Such jubilant highs to a deep, deep valley, all within the span of a weekend...it was unbelievable, like a shoddy screenplay. The newscasters had to be lying, surely? But no. Reality set in and the tears followed soon after.
And this still seems like the only appropriate way to come to terms with "Blackstar," to properly frame the final act of Bowie's career. I've admitted already that I don't fully trust my critical facilities when I listen to this record; that's because the grief is so thick, so palpable, that the gravity of it is practically inescapable.
I hope that we'll all find a way to get out of that mindset if we haven't already, though, because this album is one of Bowie's finest and it deserves to be enjoyed and analyzed on its own merits. That doesn't mean we can't acknowledge Bowie's death when we think about "Blackstar." He himself made it an integral undercurrent here, after all. However, there is also space to rejoice and to listen in wonder when we hear the first strains of the title track.
The heart of this album lies in that opener, alongside "Lazarus" and the finale "I Can't Give Everything Away." Don't get me wrong: the whole of the record is consistently intriguing. Every cut here has something to offer, from the horn-and-vocal arrangement that underpins "'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore" to the percolating rhythms and smeared guitars of "Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)." But "Blackstar" (the song) is one of Bowie's all-time great epics, right up there with "The Width Of A Circle" and the title track off "Station To Station." The shifts in mood and instrumentation are expertly crafted, dovetailing together invisibly. "Lazarus" is more consistent in tone, though the dynamic lift from beginning to end is subtle enough that it forces the listener's pulse to quicken without ever being obvious about it. And "I Can't Give Everything Away" is about as suitable a cap on Bowie's career as you could hope for. The drums are quick, active, unyielding; that pace is balanced against glacial chords, a bittersweet lyric delivered with sincere pathos, and a harmonica accents that are practically elegiac. And who could pull off an elegiac harmonica but David Freakin' Bowie?
By the time Ben Monder's guitar solo pitches and keels outward, bringing the song, the album, the career to a close, there's a certain emotional exhaustion that sets in. It's not that things have gone on overlong; it's that there isn't more, that this the last stop. We've been on this journey together with a creative force we've come to rely on. Now we go our separate ways. Trekking forward together forever, that'd be the path of least resistance, the easy thing to do. Finding our own way is the chore, and it's the chore we're tasked with at this time, whether or not we're ready to start swingin'.
Still, though "Blackstar" has that emotional density that makes us collapse in on ourselves, it is not a bleak album. We approach the point of no return, the horizon that determines whether we keep moving forward or succumb to irretrievable gloom, and we glance off of it. There is hope here. There is warmth and soul and something intimately human about what David Bowie has been able to provide for us at the end of his life. Saying goodbye doesn't negate any of that. Saying goodbye is central to who we are and what we do with our time on this big tin can we float along on. The bravest thing we can do is acknowledge that, stare it down, and keep dancing anyway.