Sunday, January 15, 2017

Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.

I like to think that besides being adventurous I'm also a loyal listener, willing to follow people down whatever winding streets and (sometimes blind) alleys they travel. But I also have to go with my gut when something is not up to the standards musicians have set for themselves, which happened a number of times this year.

Albums by Wilco, Hamilton Leithauser, Sean Lennon, Sam Beam, Paul Westerberg, and Metallica all disappointed me this year, much as I tried to like them. There were a few good songs among them and none were cynical failures, but I do think it's notable that all except Wilco and Metallica were collaborations, wherein may lie some of the roots of my dislike. Artists like Rostam Batmanglij, Les Claypool, Jesca Hoop, and Juliana Hatfield seemed to bring out something close to the worst in Leithauser, Lennon, Beam, and Westerberg respectively. Here's hoping they follow their own muses next time around.

Even though these were all past Top 20 artists, I didn't despair. The universe will provide, I thought, and it did: new favorites like Benji Hughes and Warhaus, among others, made astonishing records that fed my soul and delighted my mind. And there were the fantastic albums, EP's, and singles that I never had a chance to feature (aside from a tweet or three), which is what the rest of this post will be about. Some of these were new to me entirely, others are people I've had an eye on for a while, and two are legends in late career. Good listening guaranteed...


Morgan Delt - Phase Zero Two years on from his debut, Delt refined his take on psychedelia with addictive songs that have a way of seeming to alter the space you're in, both mentally and physically. Rather than sounding like a band, all the sounds interlock, with multiple guitars creating polyrhythmic meshes that the drums merely reinforce. Delt's singing sometimes seems like an interior monologue further making this multicolored gem a great headphone trip.

Richard James - All The New Highways Not to be confused with Richard D. James, also known as Aphex Twin, this guy is also a veteran player, having been a founder of Welsh psychedelic folk rock maestros Gorky's Zygotic Mynci back in 1991. On Highways, his fourth album since Gorky's broke up in 2006, he avoids some of the slightly forced playfulness they often pursued, preferring a more naturalistic approach. Think more Led Zeppelin III, Side Two, than Kevin Ayers. There's a lovely woodiness throughout, even when the rhythms tend towards the hypnotic drive of Krautrock. Some of the songs are instrumentals but James's lived-in burr of a voice is always welcome, as is this album - it may be the finest work of a long career. 

Lost Animal - You Yang Many is the time when I'll read a friend's best-of list and know every album but one. That can be a golden opportunity to find something great but it's just as often a dead end. This time it was the former, I'm happy to report, as You Yang is a consistently inspired album, with Jarrod Quarrell (who effectively is Lost Animal) laying his Dylanesque drawl over keyboards, drum machines and sharply plucked bass. He explories many interstices in his quirky sound, adding sax and melodica for color, and employing backup singers to keep things from getting too insular. There might be as much synthesized sound as some of the entries on my Electronic list but the attitude is all rock and it's no surprise when things get a little noisy in Message For The Future. Quarrell released his first Lost Animal in 2013, which means I have some catching up to do - now you do, too. 

Savoy Motel If it's rock attitude you want, these glammed up guys and gals have it to spare. Their self-titled debut has riffs galore, overdriven lead guitar licks (is that a Les Paul through a Marshall stack?), a funky beat that actually swings, and catchy songs. Savoy Motel are often lumped in with the Lemon Twigs, for whom they are opening on tour, but the latter's overstuffed and mannered tunes can't hold a candle to what's going on here. At its best, this is just plain fun stuff and a little bit raw. My only advice is, being that they're from Nashville, they might want to focus to what that town is known for - songwriting - because there are only five good songs (out of eight) on the album. The last third sinks as they get lost in aimless jamming. Including the sly 2015 single Cool Air would have improved things immeasurably. If they keep it short, tight, and groovy throughout their next album, it will (to quote their press release) "completely dominate the music world of tomorrow!"

Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression "Way better than I expected" is a pretty shaky scaffold on which to build a critical response.  Also, since Iggy hasn't made an album I felt compelled to listen to more than once since New Values in 1979 (OK, maybe Soldier in 1980, but I don't sing any of those songs in the shower), my expectations were pretty low in the first place. But I was willing to give this the benefit of the doubt, partly because he claims this is his finale, and partly because he has made five albums that are part of my lifeblood: Funhouse, Raw Power, Kill City, The Idiot, and Lust For Life. In the end, while this is his best album in decades, it's not quite a return to form. Producer/Guitarist Josh Homme and Iggy's other collaborators create some interesting and varied backdrops for his baritone musings, but too often those musings devolve into first-draft doggerel by the second verse, if they haven't already started there. Iggy's energy here has neither the snarl of The Stooges era nor the grandeur of the Bowie years - he's just sort of there, perfectly adequate but not riveting. Still, if this is truly his last album, it's more than respectable, and based on the recent live album, he's still acquitting himself nicely on stage. 

Julia Jacklin - Don't Let The Kids Win Like Angel Olsen, Jacklin trusts the verities of the great songwriters of the past, tapping into classic 50's and early 60's folk-based rock & roll. There's also a sense of decorum that is most welcome in these clickbait-dominated days. In opener Pool Party when she sings "I want to give you all of my love," it sounds she's talking real commitment, not a Tinder quickie. She's versatile, too, driving the band home on the rocked-up Coming Of Age and also remaining completely compelling on Elizabeth, a gorgeous acoustic ballad. This consistently great album is one of the debuts of the year. I don't know about "the kids" but I sure want Jacklin to win, however she may define the term. She's leaving Australia and touring America with Andy Shauf in the spring - maybe I'll see you at Music Hall of Williamsburg on May 17th. 

C. Duncan - Midnight Sun Duncan came to my attention when he was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2015 for his album, Architect. More than one friend for whom I played it remarked that they were reminded of Fleet Foxes, but without the clunky pandering of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. While the focus on Midnight Sun is still Duncan's beautiful high tenor, the sound is quite different, filled as it is with ethereal keyboards and songs that seem barely tethered to the earth. It's very seductive and works best when Duncan gets a little splashy,  like on Other Side, which draws on some of the drama generated by fellow Scots Simple Minds. I could've used more of that. Still, Duncan is a melodically sophisticated songwriter and growing as a sonic explorer. I plan to stay in touch with his next move.

Yorkston/Thorne/Khan - Everything Sacred There's also a Scottish tinge to this multicultural trio, as it features James Yorkston, a folkie of some renown from there, along with Suhail Yusuf Khan from New Delhi, and Jon Thorne, double-bassist who's known mostly for his live work with the electronic duo Lamb. Khan is kind of the star of the show for me, with his lovely voice and the haunting sounds of his sarangi, an Indian instrument that sounds a little like a bowed sitar. Start with Knochentanz, the expansive and astonishing opening track and you'll be hooked. Save for the cover of Ivor Cutler's Little Black Button, which is a misfire, the whole album is a gem. One reason I love this record is that it hearkens back to the the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking, which featured a divine mixture of folk and Qawwali performed by Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (it's the only time Eddie Vedder got my money - and it was worth every penny). Everything Sacred doesn't cut quite as deep as Dead Man Walking but it's one of the year's most beautifully contemplative records.

Sophie Cooper - Our Aquarius, Etc. If you loved Everything Sacred and are now craving more droning sounds, look no further than Sophie Cooper. She creates pure hypnotism every time she sings and with everything she plays, including trombone. She's also prolific - if you put Our Aquarius together with the other music she released last year into a playlist, you get nearly 90 minutes of fascination. Many is the Monday that I eased into the week in just such a fashion. She's a special talent who's not afraid to be very diffuse and interior, although the rewards are many if you reach out to meet her. You'll have more opportunities to do just that in 2017 - apparently a new album is in the works.

Mavis Staples - Livin' On A High Note While this isn't as inspired as Your Good Fortune, her EP from 2015, the legend is in fine voice throughout and the vibe is relaxed and upbeat. I don't want to be mean, but if I needed any more proof that folks like Merrill Garbus (Action) and Neko Case (History Now) are not world-class songwriters, their contributions here leave no doubt. Fortunately, the last two songs, Jesus Lay Down Beside Me by Nick Cave, and MLK Song, a setting of one of King's speeches by producer M. Ward, end the album on the promised high note.


Ocean Music - Wake: Three Songs The evolution of Richard Aufrichtig's art continues, as he puts his expansive, emotional songs in the context of an absorbing and sometimes intense indie rock sound. See them live to achieve liftoff and keep your fingers crossed for an album in 2017.

Ann Driscoll - Pushpins Although this five-song EP has a cover only Pinhead could like, this multi-instrumentalist from Ohio knows how to deliver songs loaded with charms. Her lyrics are clever and she's already mastered electro-pop and indie rock - no limits to what she can do in the future.

Nine Inch Nails - Not The Actual Events This teaser for the next NIN album got a little lost in the year-end shuffle. I was pleasantly surprised, even if it wasn't as "impenetrable" as Trent Reznor promised. But She's Gone Away had some good creep factor and The Idea Of You reminded me a little of 2wo, Reznor's 90's project with Rob Halford of Judas Priest. In my world that's a good thing!

Acid Dad - Let's Plan A Robbery I should have included this riff-tastic garage rock (or "NYC Psych Punk," as they would have it) in my Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc., but I'm only human. I suspect things might get a little wilder on stage, which is why I've been trying to see them forever - maybe in April when they hit Le Poisson Rouge. Take a look to see if they're coming to a town near you first.

Pussy Riot - XXX I'm slightly taken aback that Make America Great Again, a slinky, earworm of a protest song with a great video, didn't blow up bigger. Maybe it's that name, but with certain quotes being repeated on the news ad infinitum, it really shouldn't matter. The fact that the other two songs aren't as compelling is no strike against these committed artists. Considering the fact that they are more of a performance art political activist collective than a band in the conventional sense makes MAGA even more impressive.

Remy Shand - Archives Vol. 2: California Instrumentals Singer, songwriter, producer, player of many instruments, this Canadian R&B master sold hundreds of thousands of records for Motown back in 2002, earning a Juno and several Grammy noms in the process. For a minute, it seemed as if he could do no wrong. He's also somewhat of an enigma, having basically disappeared after his one and only album. He's been slowly leaking out singles and EP's over the last few years, with varying results, and this is one of the most interesting. Jazzy, yes, but also touches on easy listening and ambient music. Get reacquainted with a unique talent.


Courtney Barnett - Three Packs A Day She knows we want more and managed to eke out this breezy gem while touring the world.

Father John Misty - Real Love Baby Like Barnett, demand far outstrips supply where the good Father is concerned. Drenched in vocal harmonies and echo, this is even more redolent of the 70's than usual, with a chorus that is pure "soft rock," i.e. perfect.

Drugdealer - Suddenly (feat. Weyes Blood) I don't know about drugs but I would definitely buy a slightly used Badfinger or Carol King song from this guy. His loopy, stapled together lite rock was a bit much over the course of an album, but this single is pure mellow gold. Tip of the hat to Lyle Preslar and Jim Shearer from The Week In Music for this recommendation.

Tammy - Hated It (With You)
 This witty duo (consisting of Aaron Mendelsohn from Isadora and a singer who just goes by "Brooke") has a lovely sweet'n'sour chemistry on this country-pop breakup song. There's more on their album, released late last year, but I haven't absorbed it all yet.

Mark Eitzel - The Last Ten Years The former American Music Club maven is in fine, windswept form on the lead single from Mr. Ferryman, which will be released in later in 2017. Pairing the introspective Eitzel with Bernard Butler (formerly of sleek rockers Suede) was a canny choice and could lead to Eitzel's strongest album in decades.

Warbly Jets - Alive These future L.A. icons deliver a polished monolith in their first official single. Julien O'Neill, ex-Napoleon, mashes the keyboards as stylishly as he used to play guitar. World domination to come - stay informed.

Beck - Wow I just keep playing it over and over again...more please, Mr. Hansen.

Nicole Atkins - A Little Crazy I think the world of this oh-so-tough South Jersey siren. Her last album, Slow Phaser, was one of the best of 2014 so naturally I pre-ordered the new one. This epic 60's ballad has me willing to double my order!

Holly Miranda - Hold On, We're Going Home -  One of two new songs on a revised version of her covers EP, Party Trick. Leave it to this genius to make a song by Drake seem significant. The other new song, Love Came Here, is a devastating tribute to the late Lhasa de Sela, who wrote and sang the original. Any year with new music from Holly is a good year (there was also a fun Christmas album with Ambrosia Parsley and Chris Maxwell) so this improves your karma, 2016. Don't forget us in 2017, Holly!

Listen to a sample from all the albums described above in this playlist or dive deep into the full 10 hours of everything rock-ish that was at least vaguely interesting in 2016.


I also covered valuable new releases from Cory Taylor Cox, Bob Dylan, Max Jury, Sonya Kitchell, and Chris Maxwell in Record Roundup: American Tunes back in June and excellent albums by Field Music, TV Girl, and Wire were featured in Best of 2016 (So Far), Part 1 and Part 2, back in July. In October I published the aforementioned Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc., which shouted out killer albums from Exmagician, Journalism, Pale Dian, The Stargazer Lilies, Nap Eyes, Frankie Cosmos, Tacocat, Feral Conservatives, Self Defense Family, Scott & Charlene's Wedding, Parquet Courts, Omni, Big Thief, The Amazing, Ryley Walker, Lucinda Williams, and Dinosaur, Jr. It's no knock on any of these that they weren't ultimately in the Top 20 - just yet another testament to the extraordinary music of the year just past.

Coming soon: Best Of 2016: Out Of The Past, featuring reissues and old recordings newly released. And that will be IT for 2016!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop & R&B
Best Of 2016: Electronic
Best Of 2016: Classical

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