Thursday, December 29, 2016

Without Shoes inevitable Year End List

Year-end lists may seem tedious.They are easily perceived as the privilege of self proclaimed authorities & taste purveyors. Though this may be entirely wrong as humans of every age seem to have a passion for organizing things. In a sense, the end-of-year list-maker is adult version of the toddler who lines up his toy cars into neatly arranged rows for no reason other than that it is satisfying to make order out of chaos.  End-of-year lists illustrate our human tendency to order time by arbitrarily marking December 31st as the end of the year, and in doing so we like to order experience by forming a compendium of events we associate with this time frame. Ultimately, year-end lists are a manifestation of our deep urge to impose order on experience. And it's something of a mirror as well.
  The sorting out movies or albums does more than impose order on material goods; it also imposes order on the social world. By proclaiming which items are the year’s best or worst, we ultimately are categorizing ourselves. What do we value? Who are we? What concepts do we embrace and which ones do we reject? It reflects us both personally and as a society.
 Our world is an ever hastening fragmented place. At every turn, we are inundated with options: Television, movies and music crop up just long enough to be supplanted by new options only moments later. How do you make sense of the year when it’s always receding in the shadow of the next great thing? It's even harder when the most artistic or important bits can easily be subsumed by artless absurdity or populist claptrap. The junk food of human endeavor, while perhaps serving some function; creates very unhealthy conditions if consumed instead of actual nutrition.
  The New Year evokes visceral feelings, both positive and negative about time passing.
Year-end lists are if nothing else, a way to manage the psychology of the experience. Make your own list, it can be anything that merits your attention. Your list fills in the gap, completes the experience, expands horizons or organize pleasures. The listmaker offers a positive sense of control (real or perceived). And viewing the recommendations of others we respect facilitates a quick catch-up, an on-track feeling of moving forward with a sense of “done” and “will do!”

  List-making actually has a calming effect on the mind. The inner swirl of desires, goals, choices and concerns is an overwhelming experience. If nothing else list making evokes a sense of containment of the past and joyful anticipation of whatever comes next.  Also, when we read others lists, the recommendations allow us to feel protected with a bit of assurance that our time or money will not be ill-spent on unsatisfying goods or art. When someone does some thinking for you, you feel cared for somehow.
 Selection can be hard for people who are very open-minded, indecisive or too consumed by other obligations to stay abreast of culture. I would argue this is how we ended up with a demagogue overgrown toddler in the white house, there was no curator of any merit to actually evaluate political realities and signal got drowned out by the noise....but that's an entirely different post.  As human beings, we need art and culture to protect health. Studies indicate that personal self-expression or identification with an artist’s work boosts mood, decreases stress and seeds hopefulness.  Creativity has been defined as a combination of divergent and convergent thinking and list-makers employ this thought process. Your year end list is an offering of sorts and in a sense it can save  time and money and minimize disappointing experience. Also it is sort of a ritual, all cultures have rituals to deal with turning points. While New Year may be a cause for celebration, the somber awareness that we cannot turn back exists. Fear of regrets, letting go, loss or change can be unsettling. Year-end lists allow us to take stock, accept, evaluate, or  alter what we can do in what is forthcoming.
Here then is my list of musical journeys that I found fulfilling this year.
Maybe you've missed one of these.

Best Albums Of  2016 -

1.)  Blackstar, David Bowie
A wonderful parting gift, but much more than that. I listened to this astonishing 25th studio album on the Friday in January it was released, which also happened to be his 69th birthday. I spent that weekend working through the album's somber horns and avant-jazz experimentalism, the mystical, indecipherable allusions on tunes like "'Tis a Pity She's a Whore" and those multipart, Tony Visconti-aided arrangements such as the mind-blowing, challenging title track. Two days later, Bowie suddenly died and we were all were forced to re-examine/re-think the album's most curious, WTF lyrical moments like, "Look up here, I'm in heaven" (on "Lazarus") and "Where the f*** did Monday go?" (on "Girl Loves Me"). Re-hearing eccentric songs like "I Can't Give Everything Away" as existential commentary turned Blackstar into more than the final bit of punctuation on Bowie's multi-decade career.  This is a jazz-backed rock album with a melancholy ruminations on death, on identity boundaries, on fame, on the universe and astrology, on love, religion and on the limits of the popular culture. Blackstar also happens to be a richly musical offering, more sonically generous and full of boundary-exploding ideas than one might ever expect to hear from any terminally ill musician. The most endearing feature of Blackstar to me is that it refuses closure: It becomes something new every time you deeply listen. It's the most powerful parting gift a great artist could have ever given us. Whatever else one may say of Bowie's work, he was a creative genius, one of the most significant artistic forces in our lifetime. And this is an easy choice for best album of the year.

2.) - In Movement,  Jack DeJohnette / Matthew Garrison / Ravi ColtraneThis record is just enjoyable. Even without knowing any of the tunes, or the players, or their history it's solid on it's own merits. It's full of spacious slow numbers that eventually reveal gorgeous melodies. At other moments the energy is turned up, sometimes with raw abstraction, other times with dark funk grooves. Texturally and intellectually there's a little bit of an elusive and mysterious quality to the proceedings, a lot of coloring outside the beat. Ravi Coltrane (saxes) and Matthew Garrison (bass) are the sons of John Coltrane (saxes) and Jimmy Garrison (bass), and drummer Jack DeJohnette has known them since they were kids because he played with John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison. Some of these tunes salute DeJohnette's heroes like Jimi Hendrix ("Two Jimmys"), Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire ("Serpentine Fire"), and bandmate Rashied Ali ("Rashied"); others were famously performed by John Coltrane ("Alabama," "Blue In Green"). The roots run deep, and you can read whatever interpretive intentions you wish from that. Or you could just enjoy the music.
Fantastic album.

3.) Stranger To Stranger, Paul Simon
Paul Simon may be our greatest living songwriter. His songs are portraits, thoughtful snapshots on the human condition and, more often than not, Skillful observations on Americans and American culture. His consistency as an artist is unparalleled, going back fifty solid years to those early Simon and Garfunkel records. From its opening track, his masterful 2016 album Stranger to Stranger explores our fears as a culture...fears of the future, of the unknown. Every instrument, every sound effect, every vocal is finely detailed and crafted to serve the song. And those songs are more often created not from the usual three chord acoustic guitar repertoire but from the feet of flamenco dancers and electronic beats, found sounds, etc. then sculpted and changed and polished beyond recognition into these memorable musical jewels, each one gem in it's own right. He mentions having been inspired by attending a Harry Partch recital in the liner notes. While I could not detect any of the micro-tonal sonority Partch pursued in this record, I do hear the willingness to use unexpected sounds as musical instruments in the texture. It's a great album. Paul says it's his last...and he certainly owes us nothing. But we'll see. I hope he enjoys a break, but comes to be inspired again.

4.) "let me tell you" - Barbara Hannigan/Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
There is a synergy between music, words and performers that rarely rises to the extraordinary level as we find here in Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen's 35-minute song cycle, let me tell you, which features soprano Barbara Hannigan with Andris Nelsons conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The text, by Paul Griffiths, adopts all the words (about 480 of them) Shakespeare allotted to Ophelia in Hamlet, shuffled about to create a fresh, confident character with cracks of fragility. Sung by the fearless Hannigan, Ophelia divides her story into past, present and future, speaking of a time without music, the inadequacy of language and a transformative love. When she sings "you have sun-blasted me," the orchestra shatters into twinkling shards of sound. The final scene finds Ophelia calmly walking out into the falling snow. Hannigan's high C, plucked direct from the frigid air, might be the most beautiful note you'll hear all year. Fantastic album.

5.) Beautiful Lies, Birdy
Beautiful Lies, is the third album from Birdy, and it's evolved. She began as an acoustic covers singer at the young age of 14 but she's truly a confident and powerful artist now...19 when the album was recorded. On the lush opener "Growing Pains," she incorporates East Asian-influenced melody into a swelling, powerful chorus that echoes Del Rey with a little Kate Bush sprinkled on top. That refreshing quirkiness is also present on the wistful "Silhouette," which includes a surprising flourish that wouldn't be out of place on a Joanna Newsom or Regina Spektor track. Beautiful Lies' there are powerful uplifting moments in "Keeping Your Head Up" and the urgent "Wild Horses". There are nods to her origins on the piano ballads "Lost It All," the soothing "Unbroken," and the closing title track, a sparse beauty that ends Beautiful Lies with a kiss goodbye. "Turn out the light, there are no more surprises to come," she sings, as the album drifts off into silence. This is a work full of life and texture. Arrangements are great and her singing is top notch. The entire album exudes an inspiring attitude. Beautiful Lies is Birdy's declaration that she is more than able to make her mark in the big leagues and join the ranks of the alternative pop pantheon.
There is something wonderful going on here.

6.) Still Come The Summer Rains,  Ben New
Ambitious wide and ranging collection of songs brilliantly executed and expertly arranged.
This is a rare amalgam of thoughtful lyricism, inspired composition, and virtuoso performance. Deeply committed to art, expression, and quality, Ben's music encompasses diverse influences and he dissects them to their irreducible minimum;  then reassembles them into new metaphysical entities.
This is an an LP in the classic sense, a weighty serious thing made by someone who transcends jingles and singles yet brings the finer elements of that world to the arty party. This is the real deal, music that can act as a key to doorways. Part wild-eyed Romanticism, part pragmatic observation. Compassionate at times and aloof at others, this is a reading of the historical moment into disconcertingly ambivalent songs, most of which grow on you... and like Bowie's last album, these pieces always seem to have something fresh to offer with each new listening. Still Come the Summer Rains is the right album at the right time. From the hope of "Calling Out" to the stark brooding of "House Of Fear" this album never disappoints! One of the year's very finest. You need this.

7.) A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead

While it's obvious this album doesn't have the brooding guitar noise of Radiohead's earlier records, or the vast conceptual scope and studio alchemy of the band's more recent work. What it does have is a tremendous amount of heartache,  It's quite a reflection on where the band finds itself after reaching middle age with 30 years of making music behind it. The songs are more restrained, more introspective and certainly among the most beautiful and deeply affecting of anything the band has ever recorded. A Moon Shaped Pool is a bit of an acquired taste I'd say but I'd also say it will likely, in time, be considered one of Radiohead's masterpieces.

8.) Good Times! The Monkees
Yes, it's miraculous enough that there even is an album released in 2016 of all new material from the Monkees. But the truly amazing thing is, it's actually one of the very best albums of the year.
The project was initiated by Rhino executives John Hughes and Mark Pinkus, who were excited about a 50th anniversary album for the band. Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne was hired to produce the album, with tracks by the three surviving Monkees, initially unreleased songs by the songwriters they used during their initial run including Neil Diamond, Carole King & Gerry Goffin, Harry Nilsson and Tommy Boyce with Bobby Hart and contemporary rock songwriters Schlesinger, Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge, Ben Gibbard, Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller.
The title track was written by Harry Nilsson and a surviving demo from the late 1960s was used incorporating Nilsson's vocals posthumously in a "duet" with Micky Dolenz. Davy Jones is heard on the album on one track despite being dead, he performs the Neil Diamond-penned song "Love to Love" which was actually recorded in 1967 for the Monkees' third album in a Don Kirshner-supervised session while the group was trying to gain musical independence from Kirshner.
Once Kirshner was removed, the song was discarded in favor of recording an album of songs written sung and played by the group itself. The resultant album was Headquarters. For its inclusion on Good Times!, Dolenz and Tork contributed new backing vocals.
The first single from the album was "She Makes Me Laugh". Penned by Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, it was released on April 28 along with a lyric video. The second new track to be released was "You Bring the Summer" written by Andy Partridge, which was debuted by DJ and Monkee-fan Iain Lee on his radio show on May 2, followed by it being made available by Rhino.(Personally my favorite sounds like what it is, a cross between XTC and the Monkees.)
Musicians on the album include Fountains of Wayne members Adam Schlesinger (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, percussion), Jody Porter (guitar) and Brian Young (drums, percussion), as well as Mike Viola (guitar, bass, background vocals), and band members Micky Dolenz (vocals, drums), Michael Nesmith (vocals, guitar) and Peter Tork (vocals, keyboards, banjo).
The album brings elements that we love about music from the 1960s but it also brings the element of fresh and current sounds to the table, it's inspired and the songwriting is simply top notch.
Truly a contemporary pop music masterpiece! Kudos to all involved.

8). Under The Sun, Not For Pussies
 From the opening strains of "Ice Queen" a tale of transformation, acceptance, and redemption to the closing track "The Code", an epitaph of sorts for the loss of empathy and the rise of inhumanity on the cusp of the new year, this album is full of thoughtful lyricism and inspired musicianship. Not For Pussies is a duo from Perth that has a remarkable catalog of quality music that never fails to engage.
There is a unique style that pervades this, as well as their past albums. It's rock, it's heir to a great progressive tradition, but it's also ethereal and otherworldly. What I like best about their music is that it's not only intelligent, and well arranged but sublime and very personal. Something about the vocals and harmonies chosen brings a bit of the great Scottish folk traditions to the table as well. And the vocals themselves are lush and superbly executed by Jan Kidd. The instrumental tracks are layered and arranged delicately and artfully. This is a work that brings together ideas about our humanity, our myths and our modernity in collectives and as individuals. A must have album.

9.) Invisible Din, ESP
Tony Lowe and Mark Brzezicki may have released the BEST new music in progressive rock in years. From the opening song  “Overture” to the closing “Almost Seen” every piece is simply superb.
 The work is sometimes specular and reflective while also sometimes just purely jubilant. the incredibly melodic aspect shines through at every turn and like all music that I personally enjoy, it bears new insights with repeated listeningObviously the work of consummate professionals who have spent many long hours perfecting their craft. This is frankly the type of music that is sorely needed and generally not found much in today's world. Make every effort to hear this. Great work!
The album is written and produced by Tony Lowe who recently co-produced the ‘Starless Starlight‘ album by David Cross and Robert Fripp. Notable contributors are violist David Cross (King Crimson), the impeccable saxophone of David Jackson (Van der Graaf Generator), the bass artistry of Phil Spalding (Steve Hackett, Mike Oldfield, Simon Townsend), Acoustic guitars from Steve Gee (Landmarq), keyboards from John Young (Lifesigns), Pat Orchard, Alison Fleming, the pure and outstanding vocal work of John Beagley and electric harp from Yumi Hari. One of the best albums of 2016 and maybe of the decade.

Emily's D+ Evolution, Esperanza Spalding
"Good Lava," is the first track and it's also a mission statement. A beautifully dissonant guitar riff,   and the lurching time signature make it sound a bit like a dare to stick around. These are exuberant, confrontational songs, amplified in a sort of rock/funk/jazz informed hybrid style.
After winning a Grammy she took two years off feeling commercial pressures beginning to stunt her growth. On this outing she lets her alter ego speak to her more extroverted, creative side. Spalding sings through a muse named Emily (her middle name). Emily wants you to buck the system, to fight for peace and tranquility. She wants you to reconnect with your spiritual center, to avoid facades.  Recorded in front of a small studio audience in Los Angeles, you can almost see Spalding act out these songs as the band—comprised of guitarist and Christian Scott collaborator Matthew Stevens, producer/drummer Karriem Riggins, and others—create thick textures that provide plenty of space for her. People will likely call this art-rock or performance art, but D+Evolution advocates an almost indescribable ethos. The harmonic language remains rooted in jazz, but there are folk elements, prog, rock and funk elements... but like "Emily" herself, the music doesn’t seem to be "from" anywhere: It seems most concerned with establishing a space, and creating room for possibility. Even the more conventional songs like "One," "Noble Nobles" and "Unconditional Love" are expansive and rich.
There are traces of Bitches Brew, Captain Beefheart, and King Crimson in here. But not in an overt way. The best aesthetics have no zip code. And if there is an underlying theme here, it's one of  personal freedom.  Spalding shrugs at societal constraints, urging you to "live your life" on the chorus of "Funk the Fear" and shed preconceived notions of who you're supposed to be. On "One," she embraces emotion with bravo but uncertainty. The lyrics are a bit elusive at first, sprinting about behind fast-moving songs, delivered in impressionistic conversational bursts that have some common bonds with the delivery of Joni Mitchell. Listening to this wonderful album one senses a fearless generosity behind the proceedings, the message is loud and clear. Spalding has defined an already singular career, dictating a vision entirely on her own terms. And I for one am certainly thankful she has! This is one great album! You need this.

Honorable Mention - -

Car Seat Headrest - Teens Of DenialAn interesting punk outing that is highly ambitious work if nothing else. Not only is this album compelling in scope, it is frankly executed brilliantly. Teens Of Denial is something of a masterpiece. Epic in its vision, each track mumbles and roars with life, building monumental guitar noise and intricate, multi-layered wordplay before receding again to more ruminative shadows. It sounds at times like the ramblings of a madman others it's pure genius as a song suddenly (and repeatedly) careens in multiple directions depending on whatever thought or observation is being processed in the labyrinth of melodic seas.  Teens Of Denial is the kind of album future 20-somethings will obsess about if there is a god...or not.

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