If Scarface and Soderbergh can whimsically pop in and out of retirement, so can I…
This site has spent most of the year in a state of hibernation, as I have been focusing my energies elsewhere. And, in all honesty, it is likely to remain so. An obvious result of my concentrating on other endeavors is that I really haven’t consumed much in the way of current films, current books, or current television shows in the last several months. Certainly, not enough to honestly weigh in on which might or might not be the year’s best or worst. But I’m always listening to music, seeking out new music, and picking up new albums from reliable favorites. And I’m always happy to write about them…
Many people feel that 2016 has been an especially dark year. Some have even described it as one of the worst ever. While I’m not entirely sure that’s true, it’s perhaps fitting that the year’s most notable releases seem saturated with that sense of darkness, doom, and gloom. From the final offerings of two departed greats, to energized efforts from established acts who have found themselves walking on the dark side, to peak achievements from those for whom the dark is their natural habitat, almost every album on the list below seems heavy and shadowed…
Of course, it could also just be a reflection of my own personal tastes. Regardless, these are the records I found especially ear-catching this year, and I can recommend any and all of them without reservation…
10. GARBAGE, Strange Little Birds
Garbage was there when the genre designation of “Alternative” became synonymous with, “popular.” And it is a testament to their talents that, throughout their career, they have managed to remain – remarkably and respectably – both. It’s not just their often imitated, but never bettered sound – a densely layered swirl of dance pop, industrial rock, and electronica, captained by drummer Butch Vig’s prodigious production acumen. It’s also – perhaps even primarily – the feisty, fiery punk persona of the band’s front-lioness, Shirley Manson, who, despite achieving iconic fame, has never lost touch with her misfit soul. In a musical landscape currently overrun by gratingly optimistic pop plastic, Strange Little Birds is, fittingly, a strange little album, and its willingness to be unapologetically – even confrontationally – neurotic, anxiety-ridden, perverse, pessimistic, and lonesome seems somehow reassuring. A dark, jagged, meditative mission statement gifted to the marginalized everywhere, it’s also an exceptional achievement, encapsulating everything that makes the band special (including their propensity for being subtly challenging) – a document of how far they’ve come, and how true they’ve stayed to themselves in the process. Garbage has never shied away from their popularity, but Strange Little Birds is a lugubrious, yet loving reminder that, while all are welcome, their true audience has always been those who don’t feel welcome anywhere else.
9. NIECHEC , Niechec
After their spellbinding debut, Śmierć w miękkim futerku (“Death in Soft Fur,” if Google translator is reliable, which we know it isn’t…), Poland’s Niechec dodged the sophomore curse by writing and recording their second album, destroying it entirely, and then immediately writing, recording, and releasing their official self-titled follow-up. We’ll never know what was contained in those original recordings, but it’s hard to care much when they’ve offered something so utterly unique and engaging in its stead. On Niechec (the album), Niechec (the band) actually picks up right where Śmierć w miękkim futerku left off, delving further into their dark, zig-zagging (and, often enough, goddamn groovy) fusion of jazz, post-punk, and good old-fashioned rock, plus whatever the hell else they feel like throwing into the mix. It actually makes for a fascinating tonal (if slightly more aggressive) compliment to Bowie’s eccentric jazz explorations on Blackstar. But it’s not just Niechec’s fearless inventiveness that makes the album so compelling, it’s that the fact that it can be so intriguingly unpredictable while still maintaining such a hypnotic and haunting sonic synthesis, synergy, and cohesion.
8. DANNY BROWN, Atrocity Exhibition
Like the musical manifestation of a psychotic break, Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition is relentless: relentlessly dark, relentlessly aggressive, and relentlessly delivered in his signature shrill, yet ferocious flow. It is even relentlessly paced – minus a few, no less erratic, exceptions (such as the addled opener, “Downward Spiral,” the angular “Pneumonia,” or the eerie, and surprisingly affecting, “Lost”) – picking up momentum as it barrels forward. But, like the most extreme psychotic episode, it is also overpowering and undeniable. Brown has constructed a catchy, captivating nightmare, evoking images of bodies in ecstatic motion as equally as in plastic, keeping even the most disturbing moments perversely buoyant with infectious beats and pitch-black humor. Grim, jarring, and uncompromising – and ultimately, strangely galvanizing – Atrocity Exhibition is a high-energy horror-show that will leave you battered, breathless, and begging for more.
7. PLAGUE VENDOR, Bloodsweat
Crashing through your speakers like the bastard spawn of Gun Club and the Stooges, Plague Vendor’s seamless synthesis of proto- and post-punk might not be particularly pioneering, but the band’s latest, Bloodsweat, shakes, rattles, and rolls with a refreshingly raw intensity that has been absent from so much contemporary punk music. The infectious, thumping beats and pounding chords, warped periodically by pitch bends, throb beneath Brandon Blaine’s tortile baritone with barely contained violence, only to explode into frenzied assaults and tortured shrieks for their chaotic choruses. Each track burns with a threatening instability, as if, at any moment, the band might rattle apart – musically, mentally, or emotionally. Comparisons to garage rock revivalists, from Jack White to The Hives, may abound, but Plague Vendor is neither as coolly calculated as the former, nor as charmingly satirical as the latter, opting instead for a straightforward, sincere, and scorching attack. Where I come from, that’s punk rock.
6. Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked for Death
About a year ago, Emma Ruth Rundle (of The Nocturnes, Marriages, and Red Sparrowes) secluded herself in the cold of the California desert to write and record her second solo effort. The creative hermitage evolved into an exorcism of some very personal demons and Rundle emerged with what might be the most powerful album of her career. In terms of sheer cathartic impact, only Sinead O’Connor’s The Lion and the Cobra occurs to me as a possible rival. Hovering somewhere between doom folk and post-rock (though such groping classifications do little to describe it), Marked for Death is wrenching, aching, devastating – and devastatingly beautiful. Often armed with nothing more than her rumbling baritone guitar and, all at once, weathered and vulnerable voice, Rundle unflinchingly confronts death, grief, and all other manner of fates and furies, repeatedly bringing herself to the breaking point, before finally letting go on the shattering closer, “Real Big Sky.” If this album doesn’t reduce you to abysmal, cleansing sobs, all I can say is that this whole music thing might not be for you.
5. LEONARD COHEN, You Want it Darker
Like Bowie’s Blackstar, another virtuoso valediction from a dearly departed musical icon. But where Bowie’s swansong offers meditations on mortality, Cohen’s suggests a weary resignation from life. Still, surrender has never sounded so quietly majestic. Though, the music is typical (and typically entrancing) latter-day Leonard – that is to say, it evokes closing time in some desolate dive bar, its last call sung by a swaying, slightly tipsy Gospel choir – the lyrics are among Cohen’s bleakest and best. Speaking in his deepest basso profundo (Cohen barely bothers to really sing, anymore; not that he needs to), he shrugs in dismissal, disillusion, and despair, in the face of friends, gods, and lovers, but always with his inimitable combination of cool-headedness and warm-heartedness, transubstantiating sorrowful sentiments into his unique brand of poetry, peace, wit, and wisdom.
4. DARCY JAMES ARGUE’S SECRET SOCIETY, Real Enemies
You’ve never heard a Big Band jazz outfit play like this. Conceived as a musical examination of the socio-political paranoia that festers beneath the surface of American culture, Real Enemies sounds like the tense and sinister soundtrack to a 70’s political thriller, only erupting into spiraling avant-garde flourishes, and ornamented with spooky atmospheric touches and relevant real-world samples worthy of Al Jourgensen. Though divided into separate tracks, it’s best experienced as an entire journey, the individual songs functioning more like movements in a symphony. As inventive and effective musically as conceptually, Real Enemies is a carefully crafted and seductive twelve-tone descent into the conspiratorial mindset.
3. THE JD ALLEN TRIO, Americana
Everything old is new again. Allen’s intensive exploration of the blues roots of jazz (and, for that matter, all American music) is much more than a mere academic exercise. His trio wails, struts, and swings with an irresistible soulfulness and sincerity, cutting deep into nine blues-based tracks that manage to evoke Skip James and Son House alongside Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. There’s even a rueful, roiling cover of Vera Hall’s “Another Man Done Gone,” that features some truly breathtaking sax and bass interplay. All at once, familiar and revelatory, Americana accomplishes what so many popular jazz players have been attempting for decades – looking back in order to move forward – while additionally offering a thoughtful survey, and a passionate critique, of the history of America, its culture, and its music.
2. IHSAHN, Arktis
By far, the most upbeat album on this list – which is a surprising thing to say of the latest offering from one of the pioneers of Norwegian black metal – but, having expressed a desire to focus on song craft after the wild experimentation of 2013’s Das Seelenbrechen, Ihsahn has delivered what may be his most approachable – and inspiring – album to date. Arktis is still an aggressively intense listen, of course, driven by searing guitar licks, ominous keyboards, pummeling percussion, and Ihsahn’s unsettling Satanic rasp, but like JD Allen’s Americana, the album succeeds in being surprisingly and engagingly tuneful, while sacrificing none of its creator’s core characteristics or capabilities. Perhaps even more strikingly, while the familiar lyrical themes of death and darkness are still omnipresent, rather than a bleak survey, a brutal attack, or a misanthropic brood, Arktis’ confrontations with the abyss ultimately offer a vital, empowering vision (sometimes veering perilously close to what can only be described as self-help or tough-love). Arktis, as its title indicates, may be a harsh realm, but as Ihsahn makes clear, it is precisely in such forbidding landscapes that we are given our best chance to stand strong and shine.
1. DAVID BOWIE, Blackstar
Speaking of shining, I’m not even a David Bowie fan, but there’s no question that this album is the year’s – and possibly Bowie’s – crowning achievement, incorporating elements from across the eccentric icon’s eclectic musical career, while still stretching out into new territory (not bad for an artist pushing 70…). Bowie knew how ill he was during the album’s composition and recording and, as such, Blackstar feels simultaneously visionary and funereal (especially on the dirge-like “Lazarus” and the stunning title track). Synthesizing haunted tones and off-kilter experimentation with pop hooks and an almost transcendental beauty, Blackstar is a musical memoir, a self-authored requiem, and a superlative send-off for a truly unique talent.
Honorable Mentions: On their debut album, Auto, Super Unison delivers the kind of blistering hardcore onslaught we haven’t heard since Black Flag (or, at least, Western Addiction). Dalek’s infusion of metal, industrial, and ambient music into their incisive, intellectual brand of hip-hop hit an apex on Asphalt for Eden. The dizzying, dazzling, and sneering White Lung continue to evolve impressively with Paradise. KA’s Honor Killed the Samurai offers a subdued, stoic – and also moving and thought-provoking – tour of the internal conflicts of hood life. Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith bring their unique improvisational chemistry to the razor’s edge of revelation in their musical realization of Nasreen Mohamedi’s artwork on A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. And French/Ethiopian team-up UkanDanZ sound appealingly like Rage Against the Machine, only with traditional African chants and sax solos, on their debut, Awo.
That’s it for now… See you next year… Maybe…