Saturday, December 17, 2016

Top Albums of 2016

Man. Two-thousand Sixteen. What a year! Been rough on music - lost lots of huge talents. Leonard recently, Prince a bit earlier and David towards the start of it all - to name only the biggest of too many. Hell, we lost two-thirds of ELP... 2016 has some major musical losses stacked against it!

And 2015? GREAT year for music - kind of hard for this year to measure up. Found myself STILL listening to some of my 2015 Top Ten albums well into this year, matter of fact. Blitzen Trapper's All Across This Land, Darlingside's Birds Say, and Blur's The Magic Whip all enjoyed extended play in my musical world into 2016.

As Music Director at The Point, I constantly receive new music from record companies and bands promoting their releases, trying to get on the radio. While listening for what works on the radio is a little different than listening for personal pleasure, one often leads to the other. Plus, I seek out new sounds, new bands, and so get exposed to a pretty broad variety of stuff. If I like it, I bring it home.

And I DID bring stuff home. 2016 wasn't a total loss! Not at all! What follows are the ten "best" of what I brought home in 2016. This "Top Ten" may not resemble another one you'll find out there. My personal taste in music is a little quirky. I've always kind of steered away from the most popular releases - especially ones I had to play too much on the air. Stuff I bring home needs to be a sort of escape from my radio world to entertain.

10. Bloc Party - Hymns

One of the first albums I got into this year, Bloc Party's Hymns, was preceded by a track I really dug - TWO tracks, actually. Both "The Love Within" and "The Good News" arrived as singles, videos or "teaser tracks" before the album's late January unveiling. The universal nature of the message in "The Love Within" hit me immediately - could feel the love rising! The video does a nice job communicating the universality with an ever-changing cast of characters portraying the dancing protagonist of the piece.


The pseudo-Christian spin of "The Good News" blurs straying from the "good news" of Christ (the Greek translation of "Gospel") with the loss of "my baby", the Good News that once was in his heart. The vaguely biblical allusions work well, as in the lines "I used to find my answers in the gospel of St. John / But now I find them at the bottom of this shot glass..."


These two solid songs stand out with some staying power. The rest of the album is wryly written, listenable pop, if occasionally a little repetitive. Good enough to make it into my top ten, mostly on the strength of the two tunes I've singled out here.

9. The Lemon Twigs - Do Hollywood

Sometimes you fall in love with a band the very first time you hear them. A couple of promo reps - record company promotional representatives - visited the radio station last summer to play us some new stuff.  As The Lemon Twigs' "These Words" began to unfold, the sheer audacity of it - the arrangement, the changes, the harmonies - made it love at first listen. Echoing Queen, The Beatles, Big Star and Harry Nilsson via MGMT or maybe Flaming Lips, The Lemon Twigs go for it, all out, without compromise or concern in sounding too much like any one influence - with so many on display, the mixture is rich:


Then you find out the band is a couple of teenage brothers from Long Island and you say, "what?"

They're the D'Addario brothers, Brian (19) and Michael (17). According to their label - 4 AD - bio, "Brian and Michael have been playing rock music since they were old enough to walk and talk, mastering every instrument they could get their hands on and writing and performing everything together (they alternate writing credits and instruments on Do Hollywood)." They might be young, but their music verges on timeless.


"As Long As We're Together" and "These Words" were released together as a lead "single" in early July. The album followed in the fall, mid-October. It's ambitious, fun, cleverly crafted pop rock.

8. Shearwater - Jet Plane and Oxbow

Shearwater's Jet Plane and Oxbow was the first new album to muscle its way into my listening this year. I'd already gotten into the lead track "Quiet Americans" - it arrived just before the end of last year. The rest of the album proved equally impressive - good driving music! Became my commuting soundtrack for a bunch of weeks.

It sort of surprised me that this album didn't take off. Developed a theory that the album didn't do as well as it might have because of how Bowie-esque it sounds at times. Check out the aforementioned "Quiet Americans":


In years past this might not have been a problem, but when your album comes out two weeks after a surprise-release by The Man Himself - and then he dies? Your album MAY be a bit overshadowed. It's too bad - songs like "Pale Kings" are pretty awesome.


7. Arc Iris - Moon Saloon

I'd been going out to see Providence, RI based Arc Iris whenever the band returned to town, after seeing them open for FREEMAN at Higher Ground in the fall of 2014. The brainchild of former Low Anthem member Jocie Adams, aided and abetted by Zachary Tenorio Miller and Ray Belli, Arc Iris doesn't easily fit any categorization or genre.

Adams' compositions range across realms of progressive rock, art rock, show tunes, folk and jazz... sometimes in the same piece. Structures and sounds shift with the intent of the song - everything serves to build the feeling of the idea expressed, inventive explorations not restrained by conventions.

In performance, Adams has a flair for the theatrical, a la 1970's Bowie or Peter Gabriel, appearing in a gold or silver lame' jumpsuit, wearing bejeweled makeup, and usually, at some point in the show, employing giant silver unfolding fan wings to great effect. 

The songs on Moon Saloon are ones I enjoyed seeing performed live in 2015. Without knowing actual titles, those tunes became known in my mind by a significant phrase in the song - such as "...Give the Worried Man A Rose". Turned out that song was actually called "Kaleidoscope" - and it was the first track released from Moon Saloon. Check out those wings...


Given their sense of showmanship, you know their videos will be good - check out the AMAZING VIDEO for the title tack as well:



You know, it sort of feels strange to call Moon Saloon a new album - I've heard some of these songs for over a year now. Although it is great to finally have a recorded document of them in my hands. One I can share with you!

6. Caveman - Otero War

Caveman's Otero War rose up on my radar early this year . The lead track "Never Going Back" arrived at radio on Leap Day - 2/29 - and I was able to get my hands on the entire album in late March. It didn't actually come out until June 17th - woo-hoo!

I'd been watching and waiting for new material from Caveman - one of the bands I'd filed away as a personal "one-to-watch". Saw them open for Phosphorescent in Burlington and was blown away. Checked out their first two albums. Pretty good. Wanted to hear what the band I saw live was cooking up. And here it was.


This is one of those times when the access you get from working in radio is both good and bad. I had the album, Otero War, two-and-a-half months before it was released. And that IS kind of cool. But it also means you're getting into an album you can't share with anyone nor tell anyone about for a couple months. Had to wait a while before telling folks how good it was, and that they needed to check out more from the album, like "All My Life":


Really enjoyed the album!

5. Various Artists - Day of the Dead

It's surprising - even to me - to include a cover compilation, a tribute album, in my Top Ten. Not a usual occurrence. But, then again, Day of the Dead isn't your usual covers collection. Mumford and Sons covering 'Friend of the Devil'? Kurt Vile and the Violators (featuring J Mascis) doing 'Box of Rain'?  The War On Drugs covering "Touch of Grey"Very quietly over the last four years, the Dessner brothers, Aaron and Bryce (of The National fame), assembled a giant beast of a compilation - a 5 CD, six-hour, 60+ artist Grateful Dead Tribute, a new entry in the Red Hot Organization's series of fundraising discs.


Check out Phosphorescent with Jenny Lewis and Friends doing "Sugaree"
There's also the Dessner's band The National's cover of  'Morning Dew':



You get Bruce Hornsby's and DeYarmond Edison's take on 'Black Muddy River' and Courtney Barnett doing 'New Speedway Boogie'. Plus Jim James & Friends - Candyman, The National - Peggy-O, Lucius - Uncle John’s Band, The Lone Bellow & Friends - Me and My Uncle, Daniel Rossen, Christopher Bear and The National (featuring Josh Kaufman, Conrad Doucette, So Percussion and Brooklyn Youth Chorus) - Terrapin Station (Suite), Wilco with Bob Weir - St. Stephen (live), Phosphorescent & Friends - Standing on the Moon, Charles Bradley and Menahan Street Band - Cumberland Blues, The Tallest Man on Earth & Friends - Ship of Fools, Local Natives - Stella Blue, Bela Fleck - Help on the Way, Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Shakedown Street, Hiss Golden Messenger - Brown-Eyed Women, The Lone Bellow & Friends - Dire Wolf, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - China Cat Sunflower -> I Know You Rider, The Flaming Lips - Dark Star, and many more.

The epic scope and scale of this collection merits its inclusion in my Top Ten. Impressive. Most impressive.

4. Anderson/Stolt - Invention of Knowledge

As a fan of their main bands, I was excited and curious to see Jon Anderson of Yes and Roine Stolt of The Flower Kings were working together. Their first collaboration arrived this summer. Invention of Knowledge is impressive, evoking Tales from Topographic Oceans-era Yes. Stolt's instrumental backing of Anderson's spiritual lyrics echoes the complex arrangements of that golden era of progressive rock, though Topographic... is such a singular and unique work it's perhaps folly to draw too close a comparison. Plus, this effort stands well on it's own.

The album is in the tradition of Jon's older Yes music. Invention of Knowledge occasionally sounds like a new Yes album, or perhaps a newly discovered lost Yes album released some time around the mid 1970's. And that's pretty awesome! Some old Yes fans complain about the "aping" of  Steve Howe's guitar style, or Rick Wakeman's keyboards, or Chris Squire's bass lines... seems petty to me. Though fondly evocative of their approaches, I don't find the performances slavishly imitative. 

Take a listen to this official release of "Knowing" and see what you think...



Of course, the ornate instrumentation and arrangements of Prog Rock aren't for everyone... if this piece suits you, pick up the whole album and enjoy some of the finest Yes music* made in years! 


*One note... If Chris Squire were still alive, I wouldn't call this Yes music, out of respect for Squire. With him gone, for me it's Jon who carries this torch now, even if he's no longer in the touring line-up of the band. Jon Anderson has always been the spiritual core of Yes - which is where this album resides.

3. Nahko and Medicine for the People - HOKA

Wasn't familiar with Nahko and Medicine for the People before this summer. Noticed they had two dates booked in the big room of our largest club in northern Vermont, Higher Ground. Who were these guys that they could book a big venue for two days like that? Went and sought out the first single from their new album HOKA, their third, released June 10th - "San Quentin".


From the album's Press Release: "San Quentin" is "an important song in the telling of Nahko's story. It was inspired by Nahko's visit with the imprisoned man who murdered his father - a father he had never met.'Its about forgiveness,' says Nahko, 'I went there to forgive this man and in forgiving him, I freed myself. It only hurts yourself to hang onto hate. Forgiveness empowers you to create change.'" Wise words!



"Love Letters to God" was the follow-up track, another paean to understanding and spirituality, powerful stuff! And evidence as to why Nahko describes the album as "the soundtrack of the movement for a better planet."

Nahko has an unusual mixed heritage - according to his bio, he was adopted at an early age and raised by a caucasian family in Portland, OR, though he's 1/3 Native American Apache, 1/3 Filipino and 1/3 Puerto Rican. As his bio states, "He has been channeling this ancestry through his music ever since."

There's a higher consciousness at work in Nahko's music, a spiritual wisdom shining through. The mix includes world beats interpreted a la Talking Heads, Native American chants and flavors, and straight-ahead rock, all brought together with a jam band's sense of experimentation and recombination. Guests abound, from the sisters from Joseph, to Xavier Rudd, Trevor Hall, Zella Day and more.

HOKA is an impressive introduction to a brilliant emerging musical and spiritual voice!

2. The Twilight Hours - Black Beauty

The Twilight Hours are Matt Wilson on vocals, keys and guitar, and John Munson on bass - both former members of Trip Shakespeare in the late 80s/early 90s. Munson was also in Semisonic (most famous for "Closing Time") with Matt's brother and fellow TS alumni Dan Wilson. Matt and John have been performing together since the early 2000's, first as The Flops, and then as The Twilight Hours.

They announced the new album in late spring. As a HUGE Trip Shakespeare fan, my anticipation was high for hearing what Matt and John were up to. Supported their Pledge Music project and received my download codes for The Twilight Hours Black Beauty on July 12th, after their successful campaign ended - the physical CD soon followed. I'd really been digging the cut "Maybe" they'd released as a teaser track/lead single:


Happily, the rest of the album measured up well! The Twilight Hours Black Beauty is both a bit like Trip Shakespeare and a progression from that era and sound, as you can hear on the closing track "Anymore":


There's something here... undefinable though it may be, there was a certain magic to Trip Shakespeare only occasionally captured on Matt's solo album Burnt, White and Blue or the first Twilight Hours release Stereo Night (though "Queen of Tomorrow" is still a favorite. But I digress...). On Black Beauty, the magic has returned! It's great having quality new tunes from these guys.

1. Bear's Den - Red Earth and Pouring Rain

Loved their debut Islands and was really looking forward to the second album from UK folk rockers Bear's Den. We'd get it July 22nd; Red Earth and Pouring Rain was announced at the start of June and the first track was released - the mesmerizing "Auld Wives" - with a heavier synthesizer sound than the band had displayed on Islands:


Though I receive a great deal of music for free in my capacity as Music Director for The Point, I do seek out - and purchase - music that might not otherwise come my way. When I discovered they were releasing the album in the US by themselves, I bought the Bear's Den album direct from the band on it's release, for example. Although, eventually - as they tried for radio play - we were sent complimentary copies at the radio station (full disclosure, I suppose...).

We played "Auld Wives"at The Point for a while, then switched to the title track. Listen to "Red Earth and Pouring Rain" to get a taste of Bear's Den. These two songs merely scratch the surface of a deep, atmospheric and amazing album:


Lush, sweeping, emotional, poignant, song after song unfolds, shifting in scale from majestic grandeur to pulsing intimacy and many points in between. Still listening to this one - one of the standout albums of the year. "Gabriel" is another beautiful number, and includes some of the banjo not found on the rest of the album, in contrast to the predominant banjo on Islands:


Part of the reason there's less banjo on this new one is that Joey Haynes - primarily on banjo and vocals - left the band as they began to make this album. Bear's Den is now a duo, with Andrew Davie on lead vocals, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar and Kevin Jones on vocals, drums, bass, and guitar. The sound has shifted subtly, accordingly, the alchemy of the new duo leading the band in new directions. Worth a listen!

So... that's my "Top Ten" for 2016! Though "Top Ten" implies ranking and liking one better than another, many of these albums could switch places were I making this list on another day - they're more of a group than in a hierarchy. Hope I've turned you onto some music you hadn't yet heard - hate for you to miss out on any of the best of 2016!

I've also put together a Top 50 playlist of 2016 tracks over at 8Tracks.com!