Sunday, February 21, 2016

Best Of 15: The Rest


I had planned to put paid to 2015 several weeks ago, before the loss of David Bowie tilted everything off axis. Even though it will only put me further behind, I'm going to plow ahead with one last post about last year. The music deserves it.


When you listen to as much music as I do, it's never all going to be covered by the other entries in the Best Of 15 series (see below for the list). Hence, The Rest. Music included in this entry falls into three main categories: records that were released too late to be considered for the Top 20, great stuff I didn't have a chance to write about, and items from my mid-year report that did not stay at the top of my list or fall into specific genres like reggae or hip hop.

I'll now do my best to right those wrongs. Even so, I'll be leaving out a lot - like the Lloyd Price funk I discovered after reading his memoir, or that amazing Derek & The Dominoes bootleg that tended towards space rock, or the vintage Glass Harp album I scored in Austin...you get the idea. If you follow me on Twitter or on Facebook, you will get clued into this anecdotal listening as it happens. 


Now that it's 2016, I have archived 2015's Of Note playlist here and started this year's here. Follow the latter to keep up with my current listening. Time for one last look in the rear view mirror...

Too Late 

They coulda been contenders.

The rebuilding of Baroness after their horrific bus accident in 2013 has been an inspiration to all of us whose lives have been bifurcated by a before and after.  Purple, their fifth album, might have hit my Top 20 had it been released two weeks earlier - it's that good. With their new rhythm section, featuring the titanic Sebastian Thomson (also of Trans Am) on drums, now fully integrated, the band can soar, stutter and stop on a dime. The technical proficiency is there to serve the songs, however, not act as a crutch, and these are some of the most emotionally connected songs they've yet written. 

Part of the idea of metal, after all, is to express psychic agony with the sounds and descriptions of physical pain. That makes it an all too perfect medium for main songwriter John Baizley to explore some of the experience of being grievously injured. But even without knowing about all that, the songs are relatable,  their power a direct injection to the veins. If you like music of a certain weight that isn't simply aiming for extremes, Baroness is at the top of the heap and Purple finds them at the top of their game. 

See also: Shadows by Valkyrie, the side project of Baroness guitar man Peter Adams. It is, as they say, epic, even if the vocals don't always transcend the genre. 

Ryuichi Sakamoto knows a thing or two about epic, having scored Little Buddha, The Last Emperor, and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, among others. He also keeps busy with a variety of chamber, orchestral and electronic music, all of which come into play for The Revenant, Alejandro Iñárritu's Oscar-nom gobbling masterpiece. Sakamoto and his collaborators Alvo Noto and Bryce Dessner find the perfect tonal palette, an earthy but elevated combination of strings, percussion and electronics. It follows the line of the movie but also has a strength on its own. Even if you'd rather not see Leo DiCaprio in extremis ursinus this soundtrack is worth a listen.

I Want To Tell You


Time may be a flat circle but that doesn't mean I have enough of it.

Leave it to Mojo magazine to point me to the wonderful Stairway, a "new age" project featuring ex-Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty. As unlikely as the story behind the group is, it's even more so how good all their music is. Somehow they avoid many of the genre's worst tropes (and most of the 80's as well) to create beguiling miniatures. Most of the pieces are circular in form but manage to keep moving forward. The most successful tracks on new compilation Pearls Of The Deep incorporate "world music" rhythms, a flashback to some of the new textures McCarty and The Yardbirds brought to 60's rock. Grab a dose of their big calm for these tumultuous times. 

Another reissue that sounds better than ever is Simple Minds' Sparkle In The Rain, released in a feature-packed box set including live takes, remixes and videos. But the real glints in the darkness flash off the newly remastered original album. I guess Steve Lillywhite finally realized the error of his over-compressed ways because what he has achieved here in opening up the sound is phenomenal. Now Jim Kerr and co's last masterpiece finally sounds as detailed and massive as it always should have. Spoiler alert: guitarist Charlie Burchill is on this record after all.

Back in 2012 I raved about a strange group made up of offshoots from Unknown Mortal Orchestra who called themselves Opossom. Now they're back as Silicon and Personal Computer finds them more outré - and more sensual - than ever. Who cares if you know what the joke ultimately is - hop on for a wild and witty ride.


Speaking of jokes, Chastity Belt started out as one, something for a group of girls to do when the party needed livening up. Then they discovered they can write real songs; Time To Go Home is the charming, heartfelt result. 


Sometimes when a band as seismic as Radiohead goes quiet, other artists fill in the space left behind. It's probably reductive to categorize Aero Flynn, Floating Points, and C. Duncan as such but they all touch on aspects of that sound. Check out Aero Flynn, Elaenia, and the Mercury-prize nominated Architect and see if you agree.

Radiohead fans often find entree into the world of contemporary classical music via the fantastic soundscapes of Olivier Messiaen. They would also be wise to check out his contemporary Henri Dutilleux and a recent album by Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra would be an excellent introduction.

Elaenia led me to Marhaba, a four-track album by Maalem Mahmoud Guinia, a Moroccan singer and virtuoso player of the guembri, an Arabic lute. Floating Points contributes electronics to the first track and producer James Holden adds some subtle treatments to the other three songs. East meets west in hypnotic fashion and it all sounds perfectly natural.

Also delivering a fine line in hypnosis is Nico Jaar. I'm not quite sure why he didn't just put out an album called Nymphs - but if you put all the parts together, it makes quite a nice playlist.

Back in January, there was an hilarious (or depressing, take your pick) article in The New York Times about "rock music" being back. Strangely enough, they didn't mention great albums by White Reaper, Wand, Novella, Pretty Ugly, The Coolies, Wilder Maker and Car Seat Headrest. They all come at guitars, bass and drums from different directions, they should all be heard, and they're all on the playlist below. 

At the risk of sounding like an awards ceremony thank you speech going overtime, I would also like to thank Frisk Frugt and Heather Woods Broderick for beautifully assembled, extremely distinctive albums, Yo La Tengo for covering The Cure, Hamilton Leithauser for hand-delivering the stunning Dear God, and Numero Group for reissuing Eyes Of Love, a funky soul celebration recorded by convicts in a correctional facility in 1979. 

I don't know about you, but I'm ready for the after party.

Missed It By That Much 

Refugees from the mid-year Top 20


My year would not have been complete without two excellent albums by the ambient guitar sorceress who goes by the name Noveller. Start with Fantastic Planet.

New music by Patrick Watson is always worthy of celebrating. Love Songs For Robots was certainly up to his standards of beauty, even if the songs didn't always stick around.

Ryley Walker is an extraordinary musician and an impassioned writer and singer. Primrose Green was a huge leap forward for him and if he shakes free of his influences it will be something to hear.


Am I the only one who finds Tame Impala, well, tame? Maybe so, but I'll go on about Pond, the wacky psych band that features musicians who play in Kevin Parker's project, until my face turns blue. Man It Feels Like Space Again was even more out there than their last - which means more FUN.


The multicultural twins who make up Ibeyi seem to have emerged fully formed with their blend of uber-hip beats and sultry singing. I'd like to hear them feeling a little less comfortable but their debut is a real pleasure.


Finally, Bob Dylan. Doesn't he always have the last word? But as much as I loved Shadows In The Night, his take on songs made famous by Sinatra, I want to hear more of the bloody-minded storytelling that made Tempest so special.



You might also enjoy:

Best Of 15: The Top 20
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past
Best Of 15: Reggae
Best Of 15: Hip Hop