My Top 20 Albums of 2016.

2016 was a son of a bitch.  Rest in peace Leonard Cohen, Prince, David Bowie, Phife Dawg, Sharon Jones, Merle Haggard, Muhammad Ali,  Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, etc., not to mention all the social injustice and unrest, but I digress.  One good thing is there was an abundance of great music released this year, and so there’s no way I could limit it to ten and feel okay about it.  Here are my top 20 albums of the year.

 

20.  A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

What a comeback, and for great reason; Phife was the catalyst for this album ever happening.  What a way to go out and what a tribute.

19.  Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

Not typically my type of thing, it wasn’t until I heard the live Audiotree versions of these songs that they really caught on.  Great, light, feel-good music.

18.  Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine

Two great indie musicians came together and it didn’t disappoint.  Great vocals and great production, as if anything else was possible with these two.

17.  Nothing – Tired of Tomorrow

A great follow up to a debut album that I listened to like crazy back in 2014.  No sophomore slump for Nothing, just more towering, enveloping shoegaze.

16.  Woods – City Sun Eater in the River of Light

I knew I would like this one but I didn’t realize I’d like nearly as much as I did.  Great, funky, bluesy riffs and along with all the other things that have made Woods one of the most consistently good indie bands of the millennium.

15.  Conor Oberst – Ruminations

Stripped down music is what this man was made for, so those poignant vocals and clever, satiric lyrics can shine through.

14.  The Amazing – Ambulance

Along the lines of the Nothing album I mentioned above, just a bit more dialed in, and industrial which is something I’ve always had an ear for.  This album sets a mood and forces you into it.

13.  Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

This is probably the one album on here that I recognize as really good that I didn’t listen to as much as the others.  It’s great, there’s no doubt about that, but it didn’t click with me completely, or it hasn’t yet.  Sometimes these things take time, you should definitely listen to it.

12.  The Body – No One Deserves Happiness

Loud, aggressive, in-your-face, punishing, world-destroying walls of sound.  Delicious.

11.  Operators – Blue Wave

Time to fuckin’ dance.  “Cold Light” is my runner up for song of the year.

10.  David Bowie – Blackstar

Only Bowie would release and album this good and die two days later.  Unreal, just like everything he ever did.

09.  Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

Only Cohen would release and album this good and die three weeks later.  Unreal, just like everything he ever did.  Legends like these last two will live forever, and as well they should.

08.  Bon Iver – 22, A Million

I seem to like each Bon Iver album ever so slightly less than the previous one, which is still leaps and bounds above most bands’ output.  His voice is the golden ticket, and even here when he chops it up and distorts it, it’s something to behold.

07.  DMA’S – Hills End

This was my album of the late spring/early summer.  Great times were had at the pool with beers in hand while this thing was playing.  Love the vocal melodies.  The live Spotify sessions are great stripped down versions; “Step Up the Morphine”, “Blown Away”, “Delete”, “Lay Down”; this thing is packed.

06.  Deftones – Gore

One of my favorite bands ever, this was a shoe in due to my bias.  I think the experiments with different song structures and ideas paid off for them.  It wasn’t as easily accessible as they’ve always been, but once I cracked the code I could’ve get enough.  The title track is a blood curdling scream-fest, and how Chino still belts those things out after all this time is something that should not go unnoticed.

05.  Russian Circles – Guidance

This is another of my favorites, but because of this band’s style and niche I think they’ll always succeed, and since they got ahold of me early on in their careers and my adulthood, I will always cherish them.  “Afrika” is among their best songs ever.

04.  Pinegrove – Cardinal

Of anything on this list, this is the album that grew on me the most.  I nearly outright dismissed it, but over time it really started to resonate with me to the point that I think it’s probably the album I’ve listened to the most.  It’s great front to back, something that will stay with me for a long time to come.

03.  Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Another of my favorite bands of all time (I’ve had a good year, at least music wise).  I’d put this near the middle of Radiohead’s catalog; nothing generation defining like before but very accessible and immediately enjoyable.  The excitement that came with finally hearing studio versions of “True Love Waits” and “Identikit”  most assuredly gave my opinion of this one a boost.

02.  Frank Ocean – Blonde

There is so much going on in this one; so many textures, shifts, changes, experiments.  Mr. Ocean very well could’ve made another album full of pop songs with the catchiest of hooks and blow the fuck up, but he chose to be an artist instead.  This left turn has been compared to what Radiohead did with Kid A after their massive success (and one of the best albums ever) with OK Computer, and I think that comparison is a good one.  I like when artists don’t do what the mass public wants them to, because fuck what you think you want, it’s about the art.  “Nights” is my song of the year.

01.  Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

I knew this was going to be my album of whatever year it came out in as soon as I heard about the passing of Cave’s son in July of 2015.  All the beautiful and torturous stories he has told so elegantly throughout his career have shaped my life.  Everything this man says, the simplest conversations, have the chance to be thought-provoking poetry.  Words and conveying emotions are his gift, and so I knew this was going to be one of the heaviest pieces of music I’ve ever heard.  It didn’t disappoint, and I wrote about it length here.  The first two thirds will crush you, and the last third will give you a slight glimmer of hope.  The title track closing it out the way it does gives me chills every time.  2016 was deathly year, and who else  could possible take the throne and fill it like a king other than Nick Cave?

 

Honorable mentions:

Marching Church – Telling It Like It Is
Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked For Death
Mind Spiders – Prosthesis
Wussy – Forever Sounds
Young Thug – No, My Name is JEFFERY
Kendrick Lamar – untitled.unmastered
Holy Esque – At Hope’s Ravine
Pinkshinyultrablast – Grandfeathered
Shearwater – Jet Plane and Oxbow
Vince Staples – Primma Donna EP
The Strokes – Future Present Past EP

– MCG.

Skeleton Tree and One More Time With Feeling by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

 

nick-cave-skeleton-tree

Nick Cave, one of my favorite musicians ever, just released his 16th studio album with The Bad Seeds, entitled Skeleton Tree.  Accompanying it is a film entitled One More Time With Feeling that focuses on the writing process, the events surrounding the album, and includes live performances of the majority of the album’s songs.  A brief background:  Cave’s twin son Arthur was fatally injured when he fell from a cliff last July.  Some of the music here was written beforehand, some after, but the effects of the traumatic event is the focus of both the film and the album.

Originally I had planned on waiting to listen to the album until I saw the film, as Cave had for the most part intended by not releasing many singles in the lead up to the albums release.  I ended up listening to the album four times before I made it to the film screening this past Friday night because it became available to stream and purchase (I bought the digital copy, then went and bought the vinyl the next day).  I don’t regret not waiting because of how the music fit in the film.  Having already heard the music a bit allowed me to focus on the conversations more.

About the film itself, I will say that it was well done, particularly how they utilized silence, often after Nick, Warren (Bad Seed and Cave collaborator in other settings), or Susie (Nick’s wife) talking about the event.  I watched it at a venue that allows alcohol, even still it was so captivating that during those silent moments no one moved or made a noise; the air was sucked out of the room on numerous occasions.  It was heart wrenching to see them try and discuss such a traumatic thing, to see someone so good with words admittedly fall short every time he tries to summarize it.  Cave says they are connected to the personal catastrophe by a rubber band, in that they can stretch and get away from it for a period of time, but they are always snapped back at some point, and he feels it will always be that way.  He wonders aloud about the elasticity of time, and of his existence in each moment as something unique to itself, yet never more significant than any other moment, which is something I’ve struggled with personally day-to-day since I first read Sartre back as a freshman in college, but I digress.  I’ve always been astounded by Cave’s ability to make simple thoughts or conversations so poetic and hold so much weight, so hearing him talk about what happened to his family breaks me apart.  I’ve never felt more pain and sympathy for a stranger in my life.

The music itself is just about exactly what I expected it to be.  The strings, the erratic loops, the perfectly placed piano chords, the somber overtone of it all; we all knew we weren’t going to get anything like “Stagger Lee”, “Loverman”, “Red Right Hand”, “Jack the Ripper”, etc.  It flows very well, and I think the length of it is perfect.  I am surprised by the amount of hope he managed to squeeze in there, and clearly that all stems from his wife and the love he has for her.  In “Rings of Saturn” when he goes from simply speaking “this is the moment, this is exactly what she was born to be” to singing it, and in “Girl in Amber” when he sings “if you want to bleed, just bleed…”god damn.  The first time I heard the album, after the overwhelming, intense somberness of the first two thirds of it, “I Need You” and “Distant Sky” brought hopeful tears to my eyes, and then when the title followed to close it out, I absolutely lost it.  Such a great way to end the album, with a lighter sense of hope that you can feel; “I called out, I called out right across the sea, but the echo comes back empty; nothing is for free”, and then the last words spoke on the album, “it’s all right now”.  

I don’t have children and at this point in my life I really don’t see myself ever wanting them, and a part of that reason is how paranoid and worried I am about the well being of the people I care for and love.  I can’t imagine having to deal with it when it’s multiplied by ten billion for my child, and if something like what happened to Nick Cave happened to me, it would absolutely be the end of me.  I wouldn’t survive, and seeing one of my favorite musicians who has had such a gigantic influence on my life go through it is too much as it is.  All of that said, I feel lucky that he was brave enough to share.

Go give Skeleton Tree its due.  It’s one of the best albums of the year.

– MCG.

The Top 10 Albums of 2015.

2015 was an incredible year for music.  I could easily do a Top 50 list if I had all the time in the world, and limiting it to 10 made me feel guilty because of all the great releases I had to cut out, but the ones talked about here are the albums that I listened to and enjoyed the most this year.  Without further adieu:

 

10.  Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss

I’ve been a fan of hers for awhile and I believe this is her coming of age moment.  She took the step up to the level that I always knew she could be at with this album.  Snarling distortion in wave after wave, dark droning chords and arpeggios, with that siren howl riding on top of it.  I’d say this is without a doubt the most apropos title of any album released this year, because it feels like you’re staring into the Abyss for it’s duration, and by the end the Abyss is most assuredly staring back into you.

9. METZ – II

This is just pedal to the fucking metal from start to finish, and I, for one, need some of this in my life. I feel like I can chew up cinder blocks and bend steel beams with my face when this thing is on.  I’m pretty sure I drank gasoline, swallowed a grenade, and shit out a hell demon the first time I played this thing through.  I can’t say much more about this one.  It’s a bloodbath.

8. Miguel – Wildheart

I was surprised I like this album so much being that this type of thing isn’t really in my wheelhouse anymore.  Obviously his voice is the main attraction, and the sexy lyrics don’t hurt because everyone likes sex, but I think what really makes it stand out to me is the varying instrumentation and song structures from other musicians in this genre.  I suppose it’s some kind of progressive alt-R&B, it’s sexy, and it’s a very fun album to listen to.  A fresh change of pace from my typical listening material.

7. EL VY – Return to the Moon

I honestly don’t understand the poor reviews on this album.  It’s a side project of Matt Berninger (The National) and Brent Knopf of (Ramona Falls, Menomena), so I think a lot of the negativity comes from people comparing this to those other bands, albeit unfairly.  I love The National; they are probably my favorite “indie” (whatever that means) band.  I think Berninger is a genius songwriter and his delivery is incredible, so maybe I’m biased and would like anything he does.  I definitely think that’s the case, come to think of it.  It’s fun to hear him to different things with EL VY than he does with The National.  Return to the Moon is a concept album, and it feels like he’s having more fun, just shooting from the hip with no regard for conserving ammo, whereas with The National he’s a focused sniper at long range with one bullet to win the war.  There are some absolute gem lyrics (“I’m peaceful ’cause my dick’s in the sunlight, held up by kites”) and melodies here, and Knopf does a great job providing the music for this party.

6. Beach House – Depression Cherry

For reasons unbeknownst to me, I’ve always been on the outside looking in when it comes to Beach House.  I thought it might be that it’s because their songs take patience and develop so subtly over their duration that it never grabbed my attention, and that might make sense for a lot of people, but I love post-rock, and so if I can wait 10+ minutes almost regularly for those songs to hit the climax, why can’t I wait 3 or 4 minutes for Beach House’s songs?  I doesn’t make sense, however, this time around I didn’t have to give much effort.  The opening track “Levitation” hooked me and allowed me to let them in, and they went ahead and made themselves at home.  Victoria Legrand’s voice should be considered a national treasure as far as I’m concerned, and it’s the perfect vessel to deliver this ode to love and loss that is Depression Cherry.

5. Bjork – Vulnicura

Vulnicura is about the end of Bjork’s relationship with her long time partner and father of her child.  I think this is such a beautiful piece of music for a lot of reasons, yet I struggle to listen to it as often as I would like because of how emotionally devastating it is.  This is the heaviest, deepest, saddest album released this year, and it’s also one of the most beautiful.

4. Tame Impala – Currents

I’m not a seasoned Tame Impala fan so I don’t have a well formed opinion on how this fits in their catalog or what steps they have taken in any direction.  All I can say here is Currents is full of jams and it is incredibly fun to listen to. “Let It Happen” is my song of the year.

3. HEALTH – Death Magic

I hadn’t heard of HEALTH before this and I wasn’t prepared for what they bring.  It’s such a unique sound, with so many elements collaborating to make a whole far greater than the sum of it’s parts.  Short songs and hairpin turns in the landscape make this an exciting listen that’s halfway over before you can start to grasp what is actually going on.  The elegant vocals are a perfect contrast to the hard, cold metal and sharp edge feelings the music produces.

2. Deafheaven – New Bermuda

Deafheaven have been gaining a big head of steam since they began, and New Bermuda has continued the pace and upped the bar once again.  This is a relentless foray into new frontiers.  Top notch metal with beautiful, absolutely beautiful, post-rock scattered throughout.  Putting it all together in these song structures is a monumental achievement in music writing.  The lyrics are indiscernible, so I find it laughable that places such as Pitchfork focus on the lyrics to the extent they do in their review of this.   George Clarke’s howls and screams are an additional layer, an additional instrument, and are the driver of the aggression that is present, much in the way that Jonsi accentuates Sigur Ros’ sound with his atmospheric harmonies.  Whether he knows it or not, Clarke isn’t there to be poetic or prophetic, he’s there to put a stamp on the brutality.  There aren’t any standout songs here; each of the five is just as important as the others.  New Bermuda is something to behold, and I would venture to guess it will be the album released in 2015 that best stands the test of time.  On top of that, they are a force in a live setting and I definitely recommend catching them if you can.

1. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

Much in the way that Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds were my clear cut #1 back in the second month of 2013, I knew Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear had the crown about 5 listens through back in February once again.  For someone such as myself, nothing strikes a chord like a bunch of satire and cynicism.  Throw in some romantic hyperbole and tongue-in-cheek loathing of society as a whole as well as of oneself, and you’ve got a witches brew of thought provoking songs that are downright captivating.  You won’t find any incredible chord progressions, key changes, or master guitar work, it’s the lyrics that make this soar; quite the polar opposite of the aforementioned Deafheaven album, yet no less pertinent or epic.  Trying to pick one song is impossible, and each has a different reason to love it; “Holy Shit” because it’s genius, or “True Affection” because it’s so damn groovy, or “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt” because it’s hilarious, or “Chateau #4 (In C for Two Virgins)” because it’s the lightest, easy to listen to song in recent memory (I defy you to skip it), and so on.  It’s a master work, and I can’t wait to see what Josh Tillman has to say next.

 

Honorable mentions: The Dodos, Lord Huron, American Wrestlers, Hop Along, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Blur, Other Lives, Gang of Youths, Majical Cloudz, Coliseum, Vince Staples

Thanks for reading; thoughts and discussion are welcome, and please share if you enjoyed it.

– MCG.