Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Best Of 2016: Electronic


There's some interesting molecular crosstalk between this list and some of the "alien R&B" I described in my last post. But genre lines are ever meant to be blurred and many is the time that one style of music has been re-energized by incorporating aspects of another. Lots of "classical" composers are also using non-organic sounds on which to hang their music, which probably influences rock-oriented musicians, further fertilizing an already prolific field. Here's the top of 2016's crop of what Mojo Magazine still calls "Electronica."

Nonkeen - Oddments of the Gamble and The Gamble Did you ever wish the intro to Riders On The Storm went on forever? The whole song is fantastic (except maybe that line about a brain "squirming like a toad"), but the opening minute is godhead. Nonkeen put out two albums this year and both of them have plenty of that beautifully simple mystery and majesty. An on-off collaboration by Frederic Gmeiner, Nils Frahm and Sepp Singwald, they channel their passion for cassette recording and chance occurrences into sublime sounds. I prefer Oddments slightly to the Gamble as it's a little groove heavier, with some of the cracked optimism I associate with Stereolab, but you can pick which one to listen to with a coin flip - which is how they chose which one to release first!

Cavern Of Anti-Matter - void beats/invocation trex Speaking of Stereolab, head honcho Tim Gane is back where he belongs with Cavern's mix of test-lab electronics and motorik rhythms, still seeming optimistic but maybe a little darker than back in the 90's. The only track that doesn't work for me is the one with Bradford Cox on vocals, which blend awkwardly with the soundscape and feel like an intrusion on the mood. Terrific album nonetheless and a must for old Stereolab heads - and new ones: if you're unfamiliar, make a plan to change that.

Marielle V Jakobsons - Star Core Jakobsons, a classically-trained multi-instrumentalist with whom I was completely unfamiliar until now, has created an immersive glittering prize of a record with Star Core. Using a base of evolving, richly evocative analog synth sounds, and adding violin, flute, bass, her voice, etc., she builds sound designs that coalesce into finished images and then evanesce. It's a little dark yet never bleak as the excitement intrinsic in creating such perfect music is transferred to the listener.

Ian William Craig - Centres Like Jakobsons, Craig has also spent time in the academy, training in vocals and composition. This is his third gorgeous album combining his treated and distorted voice with artfully distressed tape loops. Justin Vernon may be a fan as Craig mines some of the same seams as heard on 22, A Million, Bon Iver's latest album. Craig's approach is always cinematic, too, with a hidden narrative that keeps you listening from beginning to end.

Suzi Analogue - Zonez V2: The Speakers Push Air & My Tears Dry Like David Bowie, I never gave up on drum'n'bass and have even been known to gift copies of out-of-print gems like So Far by Alex Reece (get yours for 32 cents!). Analogue's stuff has a bit of that nervous energy so I was all over it as soon as I heard her on the same bill with Novelty Daughter earlier this year. She also adds an emotional overlay that seems very of the moment. Her hard beats lead you to dance, but her minimalist melodic cells keep you in touch with what fuels your abandon.


Mndsgn - Body Wash I've loved the music of Ringgo Ancheta since Yawn Zen in 2014, but that wonderful album feels like a series of sketches compared to this. Not to worry, though, his glassy sounds are still weightless, there's just a bit more conviction to the song structures, a sense of a statement of purpose, and that purpose is to seduce you into forgetting yourself and where you are just for a few moments. Do those four walls really confine you? No. Your mind's design can take you anywhere, with the right soundtrack.

65daysofstatic - No Man's Sky: Music For An Infinite Universe I'm not a gamer, unless you count chess and Scrabble, but I'm more than aware that music has become an ever-more integral part of video games. They even perform symphonic suites assembled from best-selling games at Carnegie Hall and other prestigious venues. But having the wide-screen instrumentals of 65daysofstatic soundtrack a game is a genius idea that I wish I had thought of first. I understand that No Man's Sky has received mixed reviews but it's not even necessary to know what the game is about to lose yourself in these tracks. And lose yourself you will, especially in the long pieces on disc two, which are culled from the "procedural audio" that covers the universe of the game no matter where the player decides to go. Their patented blend of live and looped drums, epic guitars and grandiose keyboards is richer than ever, suggesting that this long running Sheffield quartet has finally found their niche in the wider world.

Ital Tek - Hollowed Alan Myson, who has also released music under the name Planet Mu, always seemed to have more promise than the tight reins of dubstep allowed him to express. Hollowed finds him coming into his own, crafting prismatically structured pieces that have echoes of Eno, Popol Vuh, and John Carpenter, while sounding very individual. He could be next on the list for video game developers - either way, I'll be very intrigued to see where Ital Tek goes next.


M. Geddes Gengras - Two Variations and Interior Architecture I first became aware of this prolific L.A.-based synth magus from his remarkable entry in the collaborative FRKWYS series in 2012. That record found him working with dub specialist Sun Araw and legendary reggae harmony group The Congos. His ability to build immersive sound sculptures from a limited palette of materials was clear there and continues to be true on Two Variations. Both half hour pieces feel spontaneously generated, with a sense of discovery and play that is contagious, especially on 03.06.15, the first variation. The second work, 04.10.15, drags a little in the first 10 minutes but repays your attention in the latter half when it gets busy and a little angular. You can dip in and out of the variations but you may find yourself listening closely to follow the evolving threads. Interior Architecture is more ambient, four abstract pieces that often (ironically?) refer to sounds of the natural world. Gengras invites Seth Kesselman to contribute some new textures with his clarinet in the third piece, which is a nice touch. Maybe more collaboration is a good thing for Gengras, but he's always up to something interesting - and 03.06.15 proves his strength as a loner. 

Nicolas Godin - Contrepoint It was Mike D. who turned me onto the French retro-synth duo Air back in 1989, handing me a promo copy of Moon Safari across the table at lunch one day. He knew me well, as I quickly became obsessed with their lush, melodic, fun songs. I spread the gospel far and wide and watched delightedly as songs like Sexy Boy and Un Femme d'Argent installed themselves in the culture. But the ultimate reward never came as nothing else they did was nearly as compelling. Now we have 50% of Air (O1?) with this solo album that is simultaneously wacky and accomplished, moving through a variety of sounds and styles in just over 30 minutes. As the title indicates, the ultimate inspiration for everything that follows is the music of J.S. Bach, the master of counterpoint. There's even a song called Bach Off in case you didn't catch Godin's drift. But instead of Baroque sounds, we get hints of Medieval prog, cool jazz, easy listening, Lou Reed's Street Hassle, and French pop to keep you guessing -  and entertained - throughout. I know nothing about the dynamic between Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, his partner in Air, but if he wants to continue in this vein, I'll be right there with him. 

Nicolas Jaar - Sirens It's taken a while for young Mr. Jaar to win me over again after the seismic jolt of Space Is Only Noise, his brilliant debut from 2011. There were a couple of tracks from last year's Nymphs EP's that piqued my interest, which was more than I can say of Darkside, the cul-de-sac side project he pursued with tiresome guitarist Dave Harrington. But Sirens finds some of the wit and unbearable lightness of Space returning, with beautiful textures and bouncy rhythms, alongside a newfound compositional maturity and even a little aggression on Three Sides of Nazareth. Jaar has always had a narrative drive to his best work and that seems to be getting stronger. I would not be surprised to see his name on some kind of visual project, such as movie or TV show, in the very near future. 

Novelty Daughter's Semigoddess was #4 in my Top 20, which means it was the best electronic album of the year - make sure you backtrack if you're not already a fan. All the selections above can be sampled in this playlist and you may find yet more joy in the Of Note In 2016 (Electronic) list. 

Coming next: the best of the rest of the year's classical and composed recordings. 

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Best Of 2016: Hip Hop and R&B


My Top 20 for 2016 included Frank Ocean, Chance The Rapper, Anderson .Paak, and Kanye West, but there was a bunch of other stuff from similar realms that entertained and intrigued. It should be noted that I use the term "R&B" loosely - in my mind I often think of some of the selections below as "left field" or " alien" R&B, which post-Frank Ocean's Channel Orange is nearly a genre all its own.

In assembling the playlist for this post I noticed a lot of one-off singles and EP's. This could mean a big year in 2017 as some of these begin to pay off into albums. Nothing is certain, but I would not be surprised to see full albums from Missy Elliott, Pusha T, Moses Sumney, Young M.a, and FKA Twigs, all of which bodes well for our ears. 2017 will also see the wide release of Prodigy's (Mobb Deep) R.I.P. Series, which finds the Queens legend collaborating with associates old and new, including some of the biggest names in contemporary hip hop.

ALBUMS & EP's

Kendrick Lamar - Untitled Unmastered Lamar can do no wrong, even delivering burning verses on disposable top 40 songs (Maroon 5? Really, dude?). This collection of leftovers from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions was remarkably nutritious, featuring expansive, lived-in grooves for Lamar to rhyme over. While it didn't hold together like the magnum opus of TPAB, it was still one of the best hip hop albums of the year. 

Kate Tempest - Let Them Eat Chaos Even if Tempest shades a little more toward spoken word on her second album, she still enthralls on this concept album about overlapping events at 4:18 AM on one particular street. She's got a large heart, which is always on the side of right, but has to check a tendency to preach. Production by Dan Carey is once again brilliant, although it calls more to contemplation than to the dance floor. 

Solange - A Seat At The Table Speaking of preaching, if this album had come out two years ago, before Trump exposed this country's slimy white underbelly, I would have thought it hopelessly out of date. But now it's messages of black pride and empowerment are a necessary corrective to the hateful rhetoric polluting our air. It helps that Solange is making the most assured music of her peripatetic career, using a deceptively light touch to deal with some heavy subjects. Unlike her sister and so many contemporaries she sounds like she's using her voice, an irresistible lighter-than-air soprano, to sing to you rather than at you. While it might lack that one killer tune, A Seat At The Table is great listen all the way through. 

Xenia Rubinos - Black Terry Cat Rubinos, a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter, covers some of the same ground as Solange, but in more in-your-face style. Shades of funk-rock icon Betty Davis and Philly Soul add historical weight to a seriously musical album. 

Ka - Honor Killed The Samurai I've been digging his noirish Superfly single all year but just learned about this full length. Call it a fan's notes on Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, as Ka constructs dark, hypnotic backings for his night thoughts about art and life. His career has been a slow burn since his days in Natural Ingredients, but this self-contained album should turn some heads. 

A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service The rumors started right after Phife Dog, the heart & soul of the Tribe, died: there was a new album in the works, their first in 18 years. And it's remarkably good, with the  thoughtful lyrics and head-nodding beats that made their name back in the day. Q Tip shines throughout and you won't soon forget his haunting chorus on We The People, which puts you in the mind of a certain kind of Trump supporter: "All you black folk, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must to go/Muslims and gays/You know we hate your ways." It's hard to imagine a better tribute to Phife's legacy than this capstone album - rest in power. 

Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition I had pretty much given up on this squeaky voiced nutjob but he regained my interest by naming his latest album after a Joy Division song and a J.G. Ballard novel. Turns out by going more batshit crazy and black hole dark, he's finally put himself in a context I can get behind. There's variety to the beats, which are mostly excellent, and well-deployed guests (Lamar, again, and others), leavening his unique attack. Like The Life Of Pablo, you feel like you've entered into a slightly crazy person's head, although Brown's diagnosis is a bit different, leaning more towards the paranoid. Not for everyone, but he's on to something. 

Kaytranada - 99.9% Great showcase for the chill Haitian-born Canadian producer's tracks, with occasional guests providing vocals, either sung or rapped. Anderson .Paak is here, but even more notable is a verse by Phonte, whose excellent flow I discovered when reviewing a Little Brother album for Off Your Radar. Drummer Karriem Riggins and jazzers BadBadNotGood add some nice instrumental touches. 

Chloe X Halle - Sugar Symphony This five-song EP from YouTube sensations and Beyoncé protégés Chloe & Halle Bailey is an introduction to two fully-formed artists. They can both sing and rap beautifully and write memorable songs, and Chloe has a hand in the production of most of these songs. Drop is the featured song but Thunder may be the big tune Solange is looking for - perhaps Beyoncé can make the connection. The delicate electro-funk-pop on Sugar Symphony has a distinctly post-FKA Twigs flavor to it so here's hoping their first full-length doesn't get bogged down in "significance" like hers did. Tune in next year...

Moses Sumney - Lamentations Ever since he drifted onto my SoundCloud with Mid-City Island in 2012, I've been an avid follower. His multi-octave voice is a wonder and no one since Terry Callier has blended folk, jazz and soul with such confidence. This year's releases, which also included the Seeds single, show him incorporating more electronic sounds into the mix, even going full Justin Vernon in the overdubbed auto tune choir of Worth It. He's still one to watch - but keep a close eye because I have no idea where he's going next. 

Isiaiah Rashad - The Sun's Tirade His last album, 2014's Cilvia Demo, was fantastic, with top shelf beats and autobiographical rhymes that were a cut above. Then the pressure was on, making the follow-up nearly as anticipated as Frank Ocean's. Unfortunately, this is not nearly as good but it is a fascinating exploration of writer's block, which may be a first in hip hop. I'm pulling for the guy so remember Free Lunch when assembling your New Year's Eve party mix. 

Various Artists - Sofie's SOS Tape Don't want to make your own mix? Stones Throw to the rescue with this seamless assemblage by Sofie Fatouretchi, one of the founders of the Boiler Room. Pulling together many of the threads found on other records reviewed here, Sofia also has her ear to the ground and showcases some up and comers like Stimulator Jones and ISSUE. She also makes beautiful music with Mndsgn on Abeja and features the stunning vocals of Charlotte Dos Santos on Watching You. Great to hear Jonwayne in there as well, even if it's just a short instrumental. Next time you get an SOS text from a shipwrecked party, deploy Sofie and there will be smooth sailing. 

SONGS & SINGLES 

Ever since my vacation in hip hop nation, it's been incontrovertible that Schoolboy Q's THat Part and Young M.a.'s Ooouuu were two of the songs of the year. The first is blessed with one of Kanye West's best features and a haunting, draggy beat. Unfortunately, Q doesn't have what it takes to sustain an album so his Blank Face LP is far from essential. Young M.a. is a witty and tough-talking highlight of the current crop of NYC MC's and if she keeps coming up with songs this sticky, her album will make itself.

When I wore my Mobb Deep shirt to the Kanye West show, it was a way to represent one of the giants of NYC hip hop. I was also closing the circle: Havoc, one half of the infamous Mobb, worked on The Life of Pablo, putting his gritty stamp on both Famous and Real Friends. He also found time to make an album with the Alchemist, one of the best producers out there. He's already worked on Mobb Deep albums as well as making Return of the Mac and Albert Einstein with Prodigy, the other half of Mobb Deep. I can't say that The Silent Partner is the equal of those two earlier opuses, but the first single, Maintain (Fuck How You Feel), was an excellent song with a classic feel that had me hoping for more. As for Prodigy, while I was excited that he was chosen to work on a project related to The Black Panther comic series rebooted by Ta-Nahisi Coates, the songs have been seriously underwhelming. Part of it is the production, putting Prodigy into EDM-like contexts that don't suit his attack, and part of it is that I don't think he really likes doing work to order. However, buried in his Untitled EP is a polished marble of a song called That's What G's Do. Produced by someone called Mimosa, it's a perfect opportunity for Prodigy to do what he does best, namely talk about himself and New York City in a flow that sounds like his life depends on every word.

I'm not going to lie: I know everyone is crazy for Run The Jewels but I like Killer Mike better as a solo act. It's not as if he's lost a step, it's just that now he's giving equal time to El P, a genius behind the boards but no so much on the mic. I've also been disappointed with DJ Shadow's output since 1996's Endtroducing, one of the best albums of the last century. But put'em all together on one track - Nobody Speak - and it's pretty killer, particularly during the vicious chorus.

Missy Elliott seemed poised for something big after her 2015 Super Bowl appearance but all we got was classic-sounding W.T.F. (Where They From) and the energetic Pep Rally, both of which kept her hand in but not much more. FKA Twigs also stayed on the map with Good To Love, a spare and gorgeous ballad. 

I also thought this was going to be a big year for Pusha T - his last album was subtitled The Prelude, after all - but all we got were a couple of tracks. Drug Dealers Anonymous finds him in fine form, spitting conscious rhymes like "America’s nightmare's in Flint/Children of a lesser God when your melanin’s got a tint." I only wish he had done two verses as Jay-Z doesn't have much to say in his bars. When Jonwayne has nothing to say, at least he's honest about it: "That's O.K., my mind's blank anyway," starts That's O.K., a single he released earlier this year. But the way he says it, you're immediately hooked. The beat is one of his best, too - melancholy and soulful.

One of the undeniable grooves of the year came from the mysterious A.K. Paul, whose Landcruisin' featured a sinewy guitar loop and wonderfully insouciant vocals. Thanks to DJ Duane Harriott, master of all that moves body and spirit, for the tip. Keep an eye out for more. 

Even catchier, although somewhat indefensible, was Joey Purp's Girls @, a scientifically designed earworm with each shouted "What" burrowing deeper in your brain. It's got a light enough touch that you can listen without hating yourself in the morning. Chance The Rapper's guest spot is also a redeeming factor - he even name drops Ta-Nahisi Coates. If you haven't yet read Between The World And Me, let this be your reminder - it's one of the landmark books of our time. 

Hear tracks from all of these artists in this playlist. This year, I'm also instituting genre-based "Of Note" playlists in addition to the general one so check out Of Note In 2016: Hip Hop & R&B - you may find something that strikes your fancy more than it struck mine. 

The Top 20 for 2016 is here and the year's best electronic music is coming next. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Best Of 2016: The Top 20

2016's Top Five Albums
For those of us who live for music, 2016 was quite a year. That neutral term embraces both the ecstatic highs created by the depth and breadth of incredible music we heard - and the pitch black lows induced by one loss after another, starting with David Bowie in January. There are very few people alive to whom I'm not related whose loss I would grieve as I have his. I have close friends who are the same way about Prince and I feel their pain, though I am not an acolyte. The footlights also went out for Merle Haggard, who sang the working man blues like no other country artist. We also lost Leonard Cohen just weeks ago, that grand and subtle nightwatchman of human behavior both carnal and complex. And that's just four of the artists taken from us this year!

These sorrows, alongside those of a more personal nature (I lost two old friends, an aunt, and an uncle this year, how about you?) only made music more of an imperative in my life. But when I needed it, music came through, not only the old favorites under which I huddled like a warm blanket on a frigid night, but also new sounds that delighted and astonished, and gave hope that we could go on. So I'm grateful to all the wickedly talented people - composers, songwriters, singers, players, producers - who populate this list and the genre-based ones to come. Seriously, thanks for the music. 

1. David Bowie - Blackstar The legend's commitment to adventure and artistic integrity made his final work the equal of his most canonized albums. Even as he told us "I can't give it all away," he gave us so, so much. 

2. Hiss Golden Messenger - Heart Like A Levee M.C. Taylor's last album, Lateness Of Dancers, was my number one for 2014 and is now deeply ingrained in my soul. This meant I had to work harder not to weight my expectations for this new record. So I relaxed into it, letting the music come to me. It did, in waves of passionate songs that expanded Taylor's sonic palette as he wrestled with the road to wider success and its impact on his life, art and family. What a wonder.

3. Frank Ocean - Blonde "I ain't on your schedule," Ocean declared at the end of his fascinating and deeply felt third album, dropped after four years of increasing internet hysteria. Fine with me

4. Novelty Daughter - Semigoddess This is the nomme de guerre of Faith Harding, who programs fantasmal electronic grooves and sings over them in a chanteuse's contralto. Sometimes two ideas overlap, as her music tries to catch up to her lively mind, but it's worth the effort to let them coalesce in your cortex. Debut album of the year

5. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool Lapidary is the word that comes to mind as the Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood & co. deliver 11 perfectly formed songs, including some of the most emotionally connected material of their career. Some complained about the lack of guitar heft - so 90's - but you can get that elsewhere. 

6. Benji Hughes - Songs In The Key Of Animals At first I dismissed Hughes' seemingly simplistic songcraft - then I hung on for dear life to his koan-like wit and wisdom. 

7. Michael Nicolas - Transitions The modern cello record to end all modern cello records. Nicolas also a warm and engaging live performer, upping the accessibility of some very knotty music. 

8. Warhaus - We Fucked A Flame Into Being Scabrous swagger and brilliant production made Maarten Delvoldere's new project the sneak attack my 2016 desperately needed. 

9. Mutual Benefit - Skip A Sinking Stone Simply - or maybe not so simply - the most gorgeous Americana of the year. The title is perfect: listening is like watching ripples on the water, and as peaceful. 

10. Talea Ensemble - Cheung: Dystemporal Stylish, assured and expansive, Cheung's compositions take you new places while feeling like they've always been there. This is no doubt helped by Talea's expert performance - they sound like they've been playing it all their lives. 

11. Carolina Eyck & the American Contemporary Music Ensemble - Fantasias for Theremin & String Quartet There's a real sense of drama to these works for theremin and strings, which I suspect would be felt even if you didn't know Eyck was improvising. Try to find a real stereo when you listen. 

12. Bon Iver - 22, A Million Like Frank Ocean, Justin Vernon likes to screw around with his voice, adding layers of autotune and distortion to what is a beautiful instrument. This is probably his most out-there album since Volcano Choir's Unmap. But unlike that indulgent exercise, the passion is all there on 22, A Million, which makes all the difference. I'll follow Vernon anywhere as long as the music has blood pumping in its veins. While the lyrics can be as radically cut up as the music, every so often he just nails you to the floor, like this plea from 715 - CR∑∑KS: "Turn around, now, you're my A-Team/God damn, turn around now." Vernon has really become a studio genius, too. Jon Hassell and Kanye West will be dueling at dawn for the drum sound on 10 d E A T h b R E A s T - and I hope they both win. 

13. Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book The Chi-town indie-rap sensation managed to conquer the radio (and earn a Grammy nod) with No Problem while still maintaining a claim on our hearts with reflective gems like Summer Friends. No problem, indeed

14. Cian Nugent - Night Fiction There seem to be no shortage of great guitar instrumentalists around these days who want to broaden their horizons by adding vocals to their songs. At first, this might seem inadvisable for someone like Nugent whose voice can be a quirky thing. But it grows on you, his warm and relatable approach gathering steam throughout this album - and there's no arguing with his guitar. A touch of that epic quality the Velvet Underground had on 1969 Live further distinguishes Nugent's folk-rock, and when he takes his time, as on the draggy waltz Shadows, the sense of delicate suspension is sublime

15. Car Seat Headrest - Teens Of Denial Will Toledo's car, where he recorded his early albums, is now almost as legendary an improvised recording space as Justin Vernon's Eau Claire cabin. But it took getting into a real studio for CSH to have their true breakthrough after a dozen self-released albums. This year has had a bumper crop of killer guitar records so what is it that distinguishes this from all the others? It's a combination of conviction, energy, and the way the songs and production are filled with little surprises (those horns on Vincent!) and switching between micro and macro modalities on a dime. In short, it rocks, and very dynamically, with Toledo's empathy and protean intelligence shining in every song. It feels fresh even as you recognize that they are the great guitar band of the moment in a long line of great guitar bands of the moment. Based on the smoking live set on Spotify, CSH is also something to see on stage. I hope to find out for myself soon - if I can ever get tickets!

16. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker Even before the great man died, this was turning into my favorite album of all new material from Cohen since Ten New Songs. Son Adam Cohen brought a tack-sharp sensibility to the production (with help from Patrick Leonard who began the project but had to bow out), never failing to find just the right sonic sensibility for each song. Like Bowie, Cohen knew he was at the end of his journey but was unafraid to try new things, such as the Synagogue choir that opens the album or the dubbed out verse of Traveling Light. His mastery of song form shows in the hat tips to Stephen Foster and references to 50's rhythm & blues. The voice became a brittle, papery thing but his phrasing was never better - heed the subtly inflected variations on "we kill the flame" in the title track. Now Cohen rules the tower of song from afar - but rule he does. 

17. Angel Olsen - My Woman When the first single for Olsen's third album came out, I was worried. My immediate impression was that Shut Up Kiss Me was a naked grab for Taylor Swiftian mind-share. But it was damned catchy, and with enough grit that I shook it off and waited for the album. In context, the song makes much more sense, surrounded as it is by expansive, elemental material like the nearly eight-minute Sister. But there's no doubt that Olsen has ambition and an eye on world domination. Unlike Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her last album, My Woman has a consistent sound throughout, mostly the Buddy Holly/Lou Reed formula of two guitars, bass, and drums with a little keyboard sweetening. This gives a more even canvas for her increasingly masterful singing, which moves from breathy passages to full-throated outbursts without apparent effort. The lyrics can be oblique but you always feel like Olsen is singing about real people and real situations - and her emotional engagement is plain as day. Listen to her sing "I'm not playing anymore" in album-closer Pops and you won't doubt it for a second. When those Taylor tweens grow up, Angel Olsen will be waiting. 

18. Ken Thomson - Restless No album in 2016 in any genre did more with less than Restless, featuring two huge-sounding chamber works composed by Thomson. Part of this was due to the recording, which puts you right in the room, and at ear level, with Ashley Bathgate's cello and Karl Larson's piano. This is the perfect aural perspective for this muscular and intense music.

19. Anderson .Paak - Malibu Drummer, singer, rapper, producer, .Paak might be the multi-threat of the year. Drawing on gospel, soul and R&B through the lens of a born hip hop kid, Malibu has no low points - imagine the confidence to bury Room In Here, an instant classic slow-jam, three quarters of the way through the album. He's wise enough to know that if you start with a song that's built to last, the rest is gravy. He's also a super-dynamic live performer based on the live set from SXSW on Spotify. Maybe think of him like Bruno Mars without the cheese. He's not perfect, though, as NxWorries, his collaboration with producer Knxwledge delivers on the beats but features seriously lazy lyrics. No hurry, Anderson, we know you're here for the long haul.

20. Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo "I miss the old Kanye...the chop up some soul Kanye," West rapped, tongue in cheek, on an a cappella track on TLOP - or maybe not so tongue in cheek based on the rough end to his year. Whatever his travails, and while this is definitely his most scattered album, there's musical fascination to spare on Pablo, as even a cursory glance at the samples would attest. The collage-like approach worked very well in concert, the quick segues and left turns creating a sum greater than its parts. Also, as a calling card for his tour, which was a triumph until it sputtered out due to multiple issues, Pablo was perfect, promising an opportunity for collective transgression as 20,000 people sang along to every dirt-dishing line. Get well soon, Kanye.

Listen to a track from each album with this handy Spotify playlist and let me know what's in your Top 20. Coming soon: "best of the rest" lists featuring classical and composed, rock, hip hop and R&B, electronic and avant garde, and reissues.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

David Bowie's Black Year




"That was patrol; this is the war."
- David Bowie, 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore

Even before we knew what kind of a year this was going to be, David Bowie's death cast a long shadow. That's partly why I've waited this long to offer some critical thoughts on Blackstar, his last album, and can now include additional words on the other Bowie-related releases that 2016 has given us.

Blackstar

There was a lot of well-deserved astonishment, from both insiders and fans, about how Bowie had orchestrated his end. And it is true that if anyone's demise could be seen has part of an overall, lifelong art project, it would be Bowie's. But two facts also remain: Blackstar will live far beyond those elevated thoughts - which give it a hell of an emotional obstacle course to run in the minds of concerned listeners - and Bowie wasn't quite done. There are rumors of unfinished songs, including one called When Things Go Bad, and possibly an album's worth of sketches,  even beyond the three tracks just released as part of the original cast recording of Lazarus, the musical theater piece that also occupied Bowie during his last years. 

Part of the fun of being a Bowie fan, especially later in his career, is finding connections, both sonic and thematic, between albums that sound wildly different on their faces. Blackstar is no exception and after a few listens I began tracing its relationship to Station To Station (which seems to grow in stature every year), 1. Outside, and Earthling. The fact that those three albums were made over a 20 year period shows just how deep a well Bowie was drawing from when he started Blackstar. 

Station To Station is interesting to think about in this context because of the slight echo of beginning with a long, multi-part song based on mysterious quasi-religious themes, then following up with shorter songs and ending with a gorgeous ballad. The title tracks of both albums also trade in myth-making, with the first describing the Bowie-narrator as the Thin White Duke and the second having Bowie state, in heavily processed vocals: "I'm a Blackstar." If so inclined, you can also play to your heart's content with the yin-yang, matter and antimatter of the opposing white and black imagery. 

Station To Station also represents the solidifying of one of Bowie's great rhythm sections, Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar), George Murray (bass), and Dennis Davis (drums), who would remain a unit over four more crucial albums and two world tours. Alomar was from the world of funk, soul, and dance music and Murray and Davis were both experienced in jazz and funk. While the three of them, along with everyone else involved, were obviously huge contributors to the resulting music, a quick look at their post-Bowie careers leaves no doubt as to who was in charge. But it also points out that Blackstar was not the first time that he pulled in musicians from outside of rock to fill out his palette of musical colors.

While 1. Outside was made with old friends Brian Eno (producer, electronics), Reeves Gabrels (guitar) and Mike Garson (piano), Sterling Campbell (drums), Carlos Alomar, etc., the album was actually assembled from 20-minute jams (known as the Leon Suites), which sound like nothing else in Bowie's canon. Some of the jazzier moments embedded in those long, dark pieces somewhat presage the sound of Blackstar. On the finished album, the song A Small Plot Of Land gives a little taste of what I'm talking about. In fact, Blackstar collaborator Donny McCaslin released his own version of Plot this past October - more on that below.

On Blackstar, in addition to trusty producer Tony Visconti, Bowie worked with an all-new group of musicians, the avant jazz quintet led by sax wizard McCaslin, a group that has been making a name for themselves over the last few years. While we'll never know if this collaboration would have continued beyond Blackstar, it's notable that, rather than picking and choosing musicians like the master bricoleur he was, Bowie here corralled what was already a tight unit to bring his demos to life. This could have been a matter of expedience: rather than giving a group time to gel, he could hit the ground running. 

He was ready to go when they hit the studio in any case. While he never talked about it (mainly because he stopped giving interviews) remarks by Visconti and other collaborators from The Next Day, his 2013 comeback album, and Blackstar, have revealed that Bowie had become a master home-recorder over the years. From bass lines to drum patterns to guitar parts, Bowie often came to the studio with highly detailed schematics mapping out how he wanted the song to be arranged and performed. In the case of Lazarus, the extraordinary third song on Blackstar, Visconti and crew determined there was no way to replicate the gloriously twisted fuzzy-sharp guitar sound Bowie concocted for the demo so they just extracted it whole cloth and laid it into the final take - which was the second take (read it and weep, studio perfectionists). Visconti also deserves credit for his expertise not only in capturing the heft of the band's sound but also in the way he structured things, each verse building on the last to dramatic and tantalizing effect. 

Reading between the lines of drummer Mark Giuliana's track-by-track breakdown, Bowie's drum programming still showed the influence of drum'n'bass, the short-lived genre that he made such effective use of on Earthling. Nothing sounds dated on Blackstar, however, which is a tribute to Giuliani's effectiveness as an interpreter of Bowie's rhythmic ideas and his ability to always remains in the energy of the moment.

That energy is furious on Blackstar, too, which is one of the "livest" albums Bowie ever made - indeed, one of the most spontaneous of the year. Working with jazz guys is probably part of that, yes, but is also down to Bowie's unbelievable vitality. Listen to the intake of breath that precedes the slamming rhythms of the second song, 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, and the shrieks and whoops during the ending - it's as if Bowie is giving us his life force preserved in wax, or a vial of his breath to hang around your neck. If you can't take in some of that lifeforce and feel the thrill of it, I recommend you pay closer attention - we should all try to live that vividly.

Listening closely will also allow you to enjoy the lyrics, which are probably Bowie's most outrageous since Cracked Actor in 1973. From the "When she punched  me like a dude," to mentions of Bowie's cock, this is what creative freedom sounds like. The fact that he's resonating with a bloody and oft-bowdlerized 17th century play about incest is also an argument for feeding your art by being well-read. You can get an idea of Bowie's home recording skills by seeking out the original version of this song, released as a b-side in 2014. It's fascinating and stranger sounding - but it lacks the athleticism of the Blackstar version, where Bowie rides the band like he's breaking in a wild stallion. 

Pity leads straight into the brooding introduction to Lazarus, which already sounds like a standard at this point. Obviously, the opening lines ("Look up here, I'm in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen/I've got drama can't be stolen/Everybody knows me now) make expert use of Bazinaian doubling*, but they're also perfectly crafted, damned compelling songwriting, each line given a polished weight. That continues throughout the song, too, wonderfully accompanied by the band's dynamic performance. I expect this song will be covered often - but good luck with that guitar sound!

Like Pity, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), is a re-recording of a song which was first released in 2014. The earlier version was a one-off made with the Maria Schneider big band and was the first hint that Bowie was on his way somewhere new. The second version is stripped down and tense, Bowie's plangent tenor floating over the drum'n'bass rhythms, Ben Monder's barbed wire guitar, and Jason Lindner's cloudy keyboards. McCaslin adds atmospheric woodwinds, lending a touch of dread to the lyrics, which depict a deadly breakup - this one might have made Iman nervous. There's a rattling energy throughout, driven by Giuliana and bassist Tim Lefebvre, and it ends, boldly, in a glorious onslaught of feedback and amplifier buzz, dropping us from dreams back into the room where Bowie & Co. made the song. 

Bowie used to open his shows with Wendy Carlos's switched-on Beethoven from Stanley Kubrick's unforgettable film of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. Turns out he was a lifelong fan, singing some of the lyrics of Girl Loves Me in Nadsat, Burgess's futuristic Russian-based slang. Part of the lyrics are also in Polari (or Piccadilly Palare, as Morrissey would have it), an impenetrable slang used by actors, showmen, sailors, and the gay underground in Britain. This enigmatic move is a perfect foil for the queasy stomp of a song, but it's not arbitrary. While it's hard to know what exactly what he's singing about at all times, the sense of keeping extraordinary pain at bay, is crystal clear. Then you get to the the crowning line in standard English, which may in fact deserve the title of lyric of the year: "Where the fuck did Monday go?"

I don't know about you, but I've been quoting it since the first time I heard it, starting with January 11th when I learned of Bowie's death. Great artists are in tune with the unheard pulse of the world so it's no surprise that Bowie bequeathed us the perfect phrase for this benighted year when it had barely even begun. It's also further evidence of how vertiginously Bowie rode the razor's edge of the personal vs. the universal, with that same phrase possibly referring to days lost to chemo fog and painkillers. An artist of Bowie's genius never did anything arbitrarily - all the linguistic play in Girl Loves Me sets up layers of distance between his pen and the pain he was writing about. Another reported influence on Blackstar was Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, from which I believe Bowie took a license to be as lyrically dense as he wanted, likely delighting in the thought of his words being parsed alongside Lamar's on Genius.

Bowie was also a master of restraint, never adding something to a song "just because." Having McCaslin lay back and provide only atmosphere on both Sue and Girl Loves Me was a wise choice. This avoids "sax fatigue," which is my only caveat about Blackstar. McCaslin has monster technique and a distinctive sound but the structure of his solos grows a little predictable over the course of the album, each climb to the upper register existing more on its own plane rather than in the organic matter of the song. 

In any case, McCaslin outdoes himself on the plaintive Dollar Days, soulfully sketching alongside the opening chords, playing a perfect solo, and almost duetting with Bowie over the out-chorus. This was the only song Bowie didn't demo, playing it to the group on an acoustic guitar (hope they recorded that) before they developed the version on the album. The lyrics are superficially simple, getting the most out of the double meaning of lines like "I'm dying to (too)" and "If I never see the English evergreens I'm running to, it's nothing to me," which could refer to both death metaphorically and the fact that he'll never see his country of birth again. Bowie's singing is almost unbearably beautiful, seeming to float by without effort.

A touch of Bowie's drum machine program segues into I Can't Give Everything Away, soon blanketed by Jason Lindner's warm analog synths. A wailing harmonica calls back to A New Career In A New Town, an instrumental from Low, perhaps a reference to the fact that whatever happened next, Bowie was already walking untrodden ground. Monder's guitar at the end of the song also ties back to Robert Fripp's work on earlier songs like It's No Game (Part 1) and Heroes, enhancing the reflective quality of the song. As a young man, Bowie often described himself as feeling distant from human feeling, a robot or a bit of an iceman, and this song could partly be seen as an apology for all the withholding he did in his life, hiding under layers of masks and personas, his "own little corporation of characters," as he said in 1975. In the second verse he sings "Seeing more and feeling less/Saying no but meaning yes/This is all I ever meant/That's the message that I sent," which could be an invitation to look back over his career and reinterpret any refusal as an embrace.

I continue to believe that Bowie was essentially not a confessional songwriter, throwing his lot in with the transformational power of art to filter the world and create something outside of yourself. Bowie was probably all too familiar with the "strange feeling" Tim Buckley talked about in a song from 1969 (when they were both tangle-haired folkies), which "won't let go" and "happens every time I give you more than what I have." Even so, there is a directness of emotion on the last two songs of Blackstar that feels brave and new. Not only did he know not much time was left for him, he also hadn't given an interview or performed in public for a decade or more. Maybe knowing he wouldn't be obligated to talk to anyone about these songs freed him up to be a little more exposed.

All art is illusion, however, and in the end the deceptive simplicity of Dollar Days and I Can't Give Everything Away demonstrate a master at work, guiding us on a journey of self-exploration as mind-expanding as his previous journeys into the cosmos. "I want to be an impact on myself," he once said, "I'd much rather take chances than stay safe." Bowie takes many chances on Blackstar, not least on the opaque title track, which is art-rock at its artiest. Even with the poppy middle section, the song never quite becomes familiar. It's black hole deep, with literary and religious references we'll be examining for years. The video is equally compelling, as is the one for Lazarus, both of which showed Bowie at full strength as a visual and performing artist. It's all par for the course for Bowie's final statement, where he brilliantly wields new tools for maximum impact on all of us, if not on himself - that, we'll never know. Some things should always remain a mystery.

*This is from Andre Bazin's theory of film, where information about an actor that's external to the performance informs how we experience that performance. I wrote more about this in my review of The Next Day.

Beyond Blackstar

Bowie's busy last years included the creation of Lazarus, an Off-Broadway musical based both on his back catalog and the character he played in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Although the show goes on in London, the New York run sold out in seconds so I can't comment on the the project as a theatrical experience. But now we have the original cast recording, which was recorded near the end of the staging in New York - and on the same day the cast heard about Bowie's death. That fact, with its faint whiff of special pleading is not enough to save the album, which for the most part does not stand on its own.


While there are some good ideas, such as the bluesy touch arranger Henry Hey gives to Lazarus, there's almost nothing added to any of the songs. Occasionally there is much detracted, as on the rhythmically wayward and emotionally inconsistent version of Changes, sung by Cristin Milioti, or the uncomprehending assay of Life On Mars? by Sophia Anne Caruso, who also sounds totally out of her depth in This Is Not America and No Plan. Some of the recent songs hold up better, like Where Are We Now?, Dirty Boys, Love Is Lost and Valentine's Day. The last three are sung by Michael Esper, who has a nice, unaffected style and seems to be connecting with the words.

Michael C. Hall (who displayed impressive iceman tendencies himself on Dexter) shows real potential as a singer, with a lot of range and power. But he has trouble maintaining a throughline in these complex songs, often starting in one place and switching styles without good reason. As an actor, he's a good singer, but you never forget that he's acting, which was one of Bowie's great tricks. For example, was Bowie acting when he yelled "Shut up!" at Robert Fripp at the end of It's No Game (Part 1)? Likely yes, but he was acting in the moment; on this new version, Hall also yells "Shut up!" but he's acting out a moment - and that makes all the difference. What had been a thrilling in Bowie's version becomes slightly cringeworthy here.

As a playlist, Lazarus is an interesting prism through which to view Bowie's catalog, blending several songs from The Next Day with classics and slightly less-known songs like This Is Not America, which was a one-off collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny for the movie The Falcon and the Snowman in 1985 and the great Absolute Beginners, another film song from 1986. However, without a synopsis in the booklet, there's no clue as to why they picked these songs or the sequence, or why the album includes a bizarrely edited version of the original recording of Sound and Vision, which is profoundly unsatisfying without context.

The best track is Charlie Pollock's take on The Man Who Sold The World, which finally enshrines the haunting electronica version of the song Bowie developed in the 90's (Hey takes credit for the arrangement - oy). It's Pollock's only solo and he is completely convincing, creating one of the best Bowie covers in recent memory. I can also praise the overall musicianship, which is extremely good especially when you consider the breadth of territory they cover (still: Lazarus 1, guitarists 0).

One thing I don't appreciate is the mercenary approach the Bowie camp took in marketing Lazarus, making purchase the bar to entry to hearing the three other new songs Bowie wrote for the play, which he recorded with the Blackstar crew during the album sessions. Fortunately, I can say that they are more than worth it. No Plan is yet another tremendous ballad, with astonishing singing from Bowie - it's one of his best performances since Wild Is The Wind, maintaining the melody's tension even at the slow tempo. It has a touch of exoticism, with lyrics a son of the silent age or Major Tom himself would love: "Here, there's no music here/I'm lost in streams of sound/Here, am I nowhere now?/No plan."

Killing A Little Time is a brutal prog rocker, Bowie's grim vocal supported by a pummeling bassline, gnarly guitar and modal horns from McCaslin. "I'm falling, man," Bowie sings in the chorus, "I'm choking, man, I'm fading, man, just killing a little time." Time better watch its back. When I Met You is slightly more minor than those two songs, reminiscent of songs like Dancing Out In Space from The Next Day. Either way, it's a fun, well-constructed song, and the musicians show off their pop skills in a committed, energetic performance. If you're like me, you'll create your own deluxe edition of Blackstar by adding these three songs to a playlist with the original album. As for the rest of Lazarus, you're on your own.

Speaking of mercenary, it's hard to imagine the man himself approving of the release of Bowie Legacy a standard-form retrospective that is completely outshone by Nothing Has Changed, the two or three disc reverse-chronology that Bowie himself authorized in 2014 and which included songs from the unreleased Toy project as well as material going back to 1964. The biggest selling point they could come up with is a "2016 Mix" of Life On Mars by original producer Ken Scott, which is essentially a disaster, burying both Bowie and Mick Ronson in the strings. The word "disrespectful" comes to mind. Also, any compilation that chooses Dancing In The Street, which should be an ironic footnote by now, over the original Cat People (Putting Out Fire) single deserves to be boycotted.

Another "legacy" collection is the 12-disc set Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976), the follow up to last year's Five Years (1969-1973) set. Both of these boxes are handsomely designed, with extensive books of photos and notes, and give decent value for money if you don't have the albums or if you're looking for a sonic upgrade. The new one covers Diamond Dogs through Station To Station and includes two lagniappes: a collection of mostly unnecessary single edits and mixes (including a ghastly chopped up Station To Station - never heard that on the radio!) and a "previously unreleased album" called The Gouster.


It's a little disingenuous to call The Gouster a "lost album" as it is essentially a rough draft of Young Americans. It does contain two spectacular songs that didn't make the cut in 1975, It's Gonna Be Me and Who Can I Be Now, which were originally released on the Rykodisc reissue of Young Americans in 1991 - and I have treasured them ever since. If you're not getting the box for other reasons, these two are available individually and are well worth downloading (you can also hear them on Spotify). But the fact remains that The Gouster, without Fascination and Fame to buoy the mood and tempo, was too ballad-heavy and likely would have failed. Bowie was smart to stop the presses and rejig the thing. I'm not even sure the earlier mix of the song Young Americans would have been a hit - it's a bit softer and David Sanborne's life-giving sax is less prominent. Finally, I'm one of the few that love Bowie's universally lambasted razor-sharp take on Across The Universe, which would never have existed if The Gouster had been released.

Another album that was thought to be lost is the original soundtrack recording for The Man Who Fell To Earth, the science fiction classic Bowie starred while working on Station To Station. While the idea of Bowie doing the soundtrack was obvious - and very appealing - he was unable to get it together (abortive sessions were deemed "substandard" by one of the participants) so a hodgepodge of sounds and songs was compiled to accompany Nicolas Roeg's vision of America as seen through alien eyes. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the master tapes were uncovered and the album was released for the first time. A huge "caveat emptor" sticker should be placed on the cover, which features a stunning photo of Bowie and some very nice typography. Let's be clear: Bowie is not on this album in any way, shape or form, not even in a line of interpolated dialog, which would have been a nice touch in fact.

So what do we get on TMWFTE? A bit of a dog's breakfast, featuring some great tracks from Japanese prog-rocker Stomu Yamashta (all available elsewhere), an OK version of Blueberry Hill by Louis Armstrong, a couple of movements of Holst's The Planets, and many, many mostly regrettable songs and fragments cobbled together by John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas. From mediocre jazzak to fake bluegrass, what Phillips came up with (on a tight deadline, I might add) is perfectly adequate in the context of the movie, but nothing you would want to listen to outside the theater. Mick Taylor completists can hear him jam on an instrumental of Hello Mary Lou and the theme song is weirdly appealing also kind of terrible - and those are the high points. Buy the Blu-Ray instead - it's a terrific movie.

Finally, for those seeking more of Donny McCaslin, this year also saw the release of his album Beyond Now, with the same musicians from Blackstar (minus guitarist Monder). I would never deny the experience McCaslin and the other players had working with Bowie, which sounds like it was life-changing, but I might question the rationale behind this album. Featuring five originals alongside covers of songs by electronic artists Mutemath and Deadmau5 and two by Bowie, the collection will probably fully satisfy neither fans of McCaslin or Bowie. A harsher critic might accuse McCaslin of pandering.

I should say that my relationship to current jazz is a difficult one. I rarely hear anything that makes me stand up and cheer the way Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane or other greats do. The last time I reviewed a jazz album that was not a reissue was Bobby Hutcherson's Enjoy The View in 2014. Maybe I'm missing something, demanding too much progress, or hopelessly stuck in the past - it's just that I'm always seeking music that feeds me and have not been finding that sustenance in today's jazz.

So the McCaslin originals seem OK, the EDM covers are nicely atmospheric, and the version of the Low instrumental Warszawa is pretty good. The cover of A Small Plot Of Land does nothing for me, however, and I actively dislike Jeff Taylor's stentorian singing. Maybe McCaslin should have called Charlie Pollock - I want to hear him sing more Bowie! It is instructive to listen to Beyond Now in relation to Blackstar, to begin to tease apart who brought what to the table. It makes it clearer than ever how in charge Bowie was, starting with the remarkable songwriting, from which everything flowed on Blackstar. So Beyond Now is ultimately for McCaslin enthusiasts only - but I imagine others could help you find better jazz in 2016.

A Final Thought

All of these other releases clinging to the fiery tail of Bowie and Blackstar streaking through the sky will remain on the periphery, more attached to 2016 than the album itself. The final work by David Robert Jones, AKA David Bowie AKA Ziggy Stardust AKA Aladdin Sane AKA The Thin White Duke AKA ★ will go on forever, at least as long as there are people seeking succor, adventure, and connection through music. 

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Note: The illustration above contains a still from Blackstar, a video by David Bowie, © 2015 ISO Records, under exclusive license to Columbia Records, a division of Sony Music Entertainment