As I start to write this year’s column, I wonder how many people will start their own list with some variation of ‘2016!? Am I right guys?! What a shitter lol!’. The political climate, the loss of many great artists and the deep hole that humanity seems so desperate to find the bottom of all contribute to a sense of fear and unease that make it hard to do normal, every day things, like listen to a great record. Music helps. It heals and can refocus you on things that you can control: your family, your loved ones, your community. Ultimately, these are the things that make a difference. That’s all the bullshit philosophizing I’ll do this year. On to the list!
My summer was dominated by this record. I think I listened to it every day for about 3 months. It was the soundtrack to my last summer without a child. As I publish this, Katie is about to give birth to our son. Its hard for me to write about how difficult the process was for us, from the initial debates of whether or not we even wanted a kid, to the physical process of IVF and all the heartbreak, stress and pain that came with its creation. When we learned Katie was pregnant I found that I had a new viewpoint on just about everything. Maybe this would be the last time we did X or Y? Maybe the change to come would mean that we wouldn’t have time for traveling, seeing friends, trying new experiences? All the fears that I think all first time parents must go through. That was my headspace when Tired of Tomorrow by Nothing came out. It was like a 90s retro rock party that just urged me to forget these fears. To live in this moment, right now, because it was passing by, and yeah things are gonna change and yeah, we’ll have to figure it all out again. That’s the whole point. This album helped me have a good time by letting go and to notice the beauty of things as you say goodbye. The album sounds like my youth with thick, Smashing Pumpkins style guitars, but with lyrics that come from an adult place, bridging these two periods of my life in a quick 45 minutes. This is my favorite album of the year.
I had never heard of this band before this year and I still feel like I know very little about them. You can go read their wikipedia page to learn as much as I do. Just kidding, they don’t even have one. I stumbled onto this record through the now defunct what.cd. In my opinion, losing what.cd was a huge blow to not only the entire music community of the internet, but to young bands all over the world. It was a great group of people that offered music from all over a chance to be heard. But I digress… Bloody Knives. Yes, what great band. Lots of shoegaze, noise pop and synth textures all over this record. A great monotone singer who sounds more robot than human (in a good way) and a solid grasp of all the technology they are using turns the album into a journey through fuzzed out landscapes where every song sounds right on the edge of exploding over into the real world. I can’t listen to this album quietly. It demands big speakers and your full attention. I’m listening to it as I write this and I had to stand up and rock out for a second. Now I’m back.
I don’t know how they keep doing it, but a new Radiohead record arrives when its least expected and most needed. Since the lads have been doing this for so long, I feel like AMSP is a band relaxed with who they are, what they are doing and what they need to say. At one time they would have been openly political (Hail to the Thief seems pretty obvious), or Thom would be more on the nose about what he was going through emotionally, but now its all hidden away behind metaphorical lyrics and layers upon layers of instrumentation. Even when stripped down like in Desert Island Disk I find myself looking for clues to unlock deeper meaning and hidden messages. Nowhere is this more appealing than in Daydreaming which uses its minimal lyrics to really make me dig in and invent more and more meanings about just what this song is trying to say. Is he talking about love? Because he did break up with his long time partner and mother of his children and there’s tons of heartbreak all over this record. Is it about climate change and the dying of the planet? That’s been a constant theme throughout Radiohead records and lines like “Its too late / the damage is done’ certainly point me that way. Is it about getting old and looking back at your life? Is that why he draws up images of an old man sitting in a white room, being served by who knows who? Its all of these things.
In a year of sadness and disappointment, many of my fellow video game nerds were really, really, REALLY pissed off at this game. It was easily the most over hyped game of the year, feeding into the long time dreams of many to explore a fully realized universe where you could fly a ship around and land on any planet you wanted, discover new life, invent new technology and take part in a fully realized, living, breathing alternate reality. Nope. It was just a video game, a pretty good one in my opinion, but still just a game. The soundtrack, however, is sublime. Hitting all the right beats of epic space exploration along with really deep, ambient, shifting tone poems. It covers a wide moat of emotional ground, sadness, discovery, loneliness and achievement, sometimes within one song. Great music to listen to while on a plane or while walking around somewhere new.
This one shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows my tastes, but I have to include it because its that damn good. If you are new here, you should know that I am slightly obsessed with Nicolas Jaar, the Argentinian / New York based songwriter and producer. If you haven’t heard of him, stop reading this right now and listen to the full album by Darkside. I will wait for you. OK? Now you realize why this 26 year old is one of the most exciting people working in electronic/experimental music right now. He combines found sound, classic synths, deconstructed beats, falsetto vocals, horns, guitars, whatever else he can get his hands on into explorations of sound and emotion. Sirens has songs in Spanish, a kind of retro 50s doo wop ending, an 11 minute opener that starts with the sound of a waving American flag and much much more for the listener to discover over repeated listens. It also has the coolest vinyl packaging of the year (although this Fight Club reissue comes pretty close). The cover of the vinyl is scratch off material, lottery ticket style. They put a quarter in the sleeve and let you dismantle the cover as you see fit. How much you want to reveal is up to the listener.
The amazing A Closer Listen blog turned me onto this one man band called Petrels. If you look at the viewer count on that youtube above, you’ll see that it doesn’t have many views. The official video has even less! This guy deserves more attention and he could easily be used in a variety of movies, tv shows or dance performances and is better than a lot of the people currently doing it. He makes drone music, focused on electronics and vocals. At times its like a less rhythmic Fuck Buttons and at others its more reminiscent of Steve Reich. He’s also made like a thousand records already, all are available at his bandcamp site. This is music I listen to at home, later in the evening, when I want to clear my mind and listen to something challenging. Sometimes music should be challenging. Listening to the same familiar things gets boring and doesn’t reflect life. Time to make it interesting.
This album leads directly into madness. Don’t do it.
Everyone knows the story here right? This album came out in the first week of the year, and then Bowie died a couple days later. Personally, I think he was hoping to go before it was released, but he got close enough. Here is a master artist’s final piece, his last transmission, death as performance art. To know you are going to die, and to still have the desire, the determination, to record and release a record is the mark of a true professional. One who spent his entire life defying those who would label him, changing himself and his medium every chance he got so his fans wouldn’t get bored. Blackstar resonates with that passion and with the message that its all worth it. Push yourself, change yourself, never rest, and when your time comes you can look up at the sky and say goddamnit I did this the way I wanted to do it.
Three guys: a guitar player, an analog synth player and a bass clarinetist is all you need to make some truly original and interesting music. This is an album designed for vinyl. Two tracks on the whole record, each take up one side. This is late night listening. Possibly under the influence of some substances so that you can relax, reflect and zone the fuck out. It rewards patience and an imaginative mind. Dive into its layers and you will discover new aspects of what’s going on musically. Close your eyes and do some deep breathing and see what emerges out of your subconscious. Like some kind of drug trip, it will reveal what’s underneath whether you want it to or not.
Another find from A Closer Listen and another solo artist making very interesting sounds. This is just some kid in New York making music for the first time. His bandcamp is all over the place. He’ll make some electronic music and then switch over to the style of this record, looped violin and string instruments with some light electronics. The five songs here are just great and they all fit the title of the album perfectly. If you are having a rough patch and need something to help you move through the various stages of grief, I can’t imagine a better piece of music for you. Its spacious and vast while communicating just enough melody and tone to ground you in its space. It drones for a time and then pulls you back into a rhythmic section. It reminds me of thoughts as they flow through your mind, each taking their own form for a brief period before you move on to the next one. This is a short record because it doesn’t need to do more than this. Throw this kid some listens and some support so that he can continue to make interesting music.