The Year In Music, 2016 Part 3

The Year In Music, 2016 Part 3

Monday, 09 January 2017

While I heard a lot of people complain that 2016 was a really poor year for rock and all its associated sub-genres (punk, hardcore, hard rock, stoner rock, metal et c.), the only thing I can assume is that those critics simply weren’t listening. In fact; picking out just ten great albums this year was nearly fucking impossible; doing so forced me to leave out many albums, those by Fat White Family, Dandy Warhols, XIXA and Pup among them. It feel like I’m doing a lot of bands a disservice in limiting my list, but ten is what I was asked for and so ten is what I’ve listed here, in inverse order (to at least add a bit of anticipation among those who, like me, don’t just want to look at the Number Ones before moving on).

Top Ten Albums of 2016:
10.) The Pixies – Head Carrier (PIAS America/Sony Music) – More than any other band in memory (Ozzy might come close though, as he proved when he reissued Blizzard Of Ozz with the drum and bass parts re-recorded to cut the original rhythm section out of royalties a couple of years ago), The Pixies really do shine when they’re being petulant. The proof stands in listening to Head Carrier (which is intended to be synonymous with martyrdom, in this case); on their sixth full-length, David Lovering, Joey Santiago and Black Francis go out of their way to make an album which is a great throwback to the band’s Surfer Rosa days, and prove that they could do it without Kim Deal. It’s loud, it’s caustic, it’s angry and it never backs down once — it’s great.

09.) Like A Motorcycle – High Hopes (Ground Swell Records) – Blazing out of city which also gave birth to bands like Sloan (Halifax) may have turned out to be how both Like A Motorcycle and their debut album, High Hopes, first garnered notice, but it won’t take long for those who pick the album up to realize how good it is. On High Hopes, Like A Motorcycle just flat-out assault listeners in the finest tradition of Riot Grrrl bands like L7 and Bikini Kill and don’t bother to pull any punches before just unceremoniously walking away and leaving listeners to try and collect themselves.

08.) Green Day – Revolution Radio (Reprise Records) – As any fan will quietly admit, it’s about time Green Day pulled themselves out of the conceptually-driven cycle they’d locked themselves into for the last twelve years. Revolution Radio finally delivers something truly fresh; finally, there is no concept driving this album, it’s just a really good Green Day album which features twelve really good pop-punk songs as only Green Day can make them. That it is just that simple is selling point enough.

07.) Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd./Sony Music) – Over the last few years, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have gone out of their way to reach in almost every musical direction they’re able in the name of showing just how versatile they can be. Many fans will say it has yielded great results and that’s true – but Skeleton Tree proves to be the best (in this critic’s opinion), because all it does is find the group show that they have a softer side and can be lovers when the mood strikes them. Throughout Skeleton Tree, the throes of romance build and the darkness which has always been part of Cave’s persona gets softened and mixed in evenly so that it is no longer a clear or dramatic feature of the music – the darkness just heightens the passion of the it instead. It’s beautiful – and beautifully done.

06.) NOFX – First Ditch Effort (Fat Wreck Chords) – This year had already been a remarkable one for NOFX before First Ditch Effort came out (the band published its autobiography, Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories, in addition to the group’s members expressing a lot of personal growth), but in this album’s thirteen songs stands the proof that, after working through a bunch of their demons with their autobiography, the band was able to come out fresh with new ideas and new focus. On First Ditch Effort, NOFX successfully proves to listeners that all the mess the book addressed has been stripped off and just gets to work. “I’m A Transvest-lite” celebrates Fat Mike’s more fluid sexuality while “Dead Beat Mom” looks at his divorce and “Six Years On Dope” (sort of) addresses the end of the singer’s drug over use (he might not be 100% clean, but he’s better than he was). That’s pretty cool to hear, but the album isn’t all about Mike; “Oxy Moronic” takes a couple of very well-placed shots at the verbiage of the politically correct and how perfectly futile it is, while “I’m So Sorry Tony” addresses the death of Tony Sly in a perfectly cathartic and respectful way. Collected together, the songs on First Ditch Effort feel like they might just represent a new beginning for NOFX which is really heartening; they’re in good shape and their fans are going to need them to be, if anyone hopes to make it out of the dark ages which are coming with the presidency of Donald Trump alive.

05.) David Bowie – blackstar (Sony Music) – I’m sure David Bowie’s final album will top plenty of Year-End lists, but I just cannot bring myself to do that — it’s difficult to imagine putting forth an album as Record of the Year, knowing full well that its maker cannot present a follow-up release. That does not mean blackstar isn’t a great album though; in fact, it is my favorite Bowie album in over a decade. blackstar presents David Bowie as an ambitious musician to his very last, and it is the best of the singer’s neo-classical period. While bittersweet, that’s not a bad note to end on.

04.) Descendents – Hypercaffium Spazzinate (Epitaph) – On their newest album, he Descendents begin boldly examining their age as the tape rolls but, rather than just feeling like a trite concession of fact (like saying “Okay, weâ, we’re fifty!” like The Ramones did when they released their farewell album, Adios Amigos), the band has a little fun with it. On “No Fat Burger,” for example, Aukerman bemoans the fact that he can’t indulge his favorite culinary subject anymore (greasy food) as he complains “Can’t have no more juicy burgers/ Can’t have no more greasy fries/ Doctor took my lipid profile/ He told me I’m barely alive,” before punctuating it all with the sour point (which echoes back to the band’s Bonus Fat EP) “No more fat/ No more fat/ I like food, but all the food that tastes good/ I can’t have that.” In that, longtime fans will giggle because the venom in Aukerman’s voice is impossible to miss and it illustrates that the singer has aged well because he’s actually accepting it. It doesn’t happen often in punk rock, but it incredibly well here.

03.) Fews – Means (PIAS America) – While it has already been called a punk record, Means doesn’t try to pay lip service to most of the formulaic tenets typically associated with punk, and doesn’t bother allying with hardcore, indie or even something as vague as “the underground” either. Simply put, this album stands all on its own. It might sound a little trite, but that disinterest in generic terms might be the best point that the album has going for it outside of the music; it stands alone, can’t be lumped in with anything. That’s the kind of exciting thing which spawns all new cultural movements.

02.) Great Apes – California Heart (Asian Man) – It may have taken a few releases for the band to get the bugs worked out of their sound (they’ve already got one full-length album, one comp which collected a bunch of previously released tracks and a bunch of singles and EPs on top of that too), but Great Apes have truly found their magic on California Heart – their sophomore album. That is not to say California Heart arrives with no stray sparks of chaos in it and devoid of raw nervous energy, it simply means the band has tempered and honed their sound to a fine edge. There are no wasted movements anywhere through these ten songs, just a solid set which swings for the fences every time and never misses.

01.) Dean Ween Group – The Deaner Album (ATO/Cadence) – Ever since Ween announced its dissolution in 2012, the band’s fans have agonized over what might come next from founding members Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman and Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo. Some of them figured they pretty much had the group’s dynamic nailed; because Melchiondo was the huskier-voiced entity in the group and already had side projects like Moist Boyz on his resume, the lighter, more “songwriterly” material must have been Freeman’s contribution. That assumption gained credence when his first “post-Ween” album appeared on Dine Alone Records in 2014. It is finally with the release of the long-awaited, much anticipated solo album from The Dean Ween Group, The Deaner Album, that fans and critics will really get the chance to discover how absolutely, positively shallow their assumptions about Melchiondo’s contributions to Ween were though; simply said, The Deaner Album marks the emergence of an absolutely incredible musical talent – he simply chose to share the spotlight before now.

Now, to be fair, The Deaner Album begins exactly how many critics may have expected it would. As it opens, listeners will find they’re only tepidly excited by “Dickie Betts” because it’s just such a typical song to hear coming out of a guitarist’s side project. True, Melchiondo nails the tone and attack that Betts brought to the Allman Brothers Band (brown sugar-sweet Les Paul leads propped up by a guitar-centered, caramel-flavored rhythm figure – check), but it’s just so very ‘of the norm’ for a guitar player that, at first, it causes sighs of disappointment. It’s just so by-the-book! It’s precisely what fans would expect of any guitar player – and that it’s an instrumental number only furthers that point.

Happily, the whole world seems to flip on its head (some Ween fans would say, ‘as it should’) immediately after “Dickie Betts” runs out and “Exercise Man” runs in on a distinctly ‘brown’ tack. This is where many dots come to be connected for listeners who had previously underestimated Melchiondo (among whom I must confess that I should count myself); the speedy, stringy guitar which drives “Exercise Man” pushes the track along manically in much the same way “Ocean Man” and “Waving My Dick In The Wind” did on The Mollusk and “Take Me Away” did on Chocolate and Cheese, and instantly causes adrenaline levels to shoot up and inspire those who hear it to begin dancing ecstatically – it’s absolutely delightful.

After “Exercise Man” gets the album really moving, The Deaner Album continues to shoot out sparks of brilliance which are guaranteed to hold listeners enthralled by touching upon all of the points which always tickle a Ween fan’s fancy through the muscular/elastic “Bundle Of Joy,” the desert rock tones which color “Charlie Brown,” the minute-long, “Hey Fancy Pants”-esque instrumental recreation “Schwartze Pete” and the sexy-ish, sweaty nod to Prince “Mercedes Benz” which will have those who loved Ween sighing in fits of rapture. While there are a couple of weaker moments in this run-time (“Gum” is a throwaway, the Hendrix nod “Gerry” is kind of tame and the overdriven, overrun “Take It and Break It”), those are easy enough to forget when they’re only laced as they are between the gems on The Deaner Album.

“So how does The Deaner Album stack up in the end,” you plead? Here it is made plain for readers: The Deaner Album is an unbelievably good album. It is easily better than all of the Moist Boyz albums and is also better than Freeman’s debut album, in this critic’s opinion. Further, The Deaner Album makes a great impression because it illustrates how talented and versatile a songwriter Melchiondo really is, and how instrumental that talent was to Ween’s work; a fact which had been rendered a little unclear until now. It is for all of those reasons that listeners in general and Ween fans in specific will be won by The Deaner Album. This release is not to be missed.

Best reissues of 2016:
10.) R.E.M. – Out Of Time (Warner) – While it’s unlikely that anyone would call Out Of Time R.E.M.’s finest album ever, many people will happily concede that Out Of Time was their first introduction to the band because it was a huge pop cultural breakthrough. This album DID feature some really big singles (“Shiny Happy People,” “Losing My Religion”) as well as some tracks which could only be characterized as representative of R.E.M.’s strengths as songwriters. Many fans have to admit that this album Is the one which got them on the path and this reissue celebrates that handily with several extra frills to up its value.

9.) The Wallflowers – Bringing Down The Horse (Geffen/UMe) – The trick that The Wallflowers found on their sophomore album (which had sort of evaded them when their self-titled debut album hit in ’92) was not exactly to blaze a brand new trail exactly, but to balance the tones that singer Jakob Dylan’s father Bob had utilized when he’d first gone electric in 1965 (the brash stuff which had come with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde) with a distinct attachment to the emotionally articulated sounds which had come along with alt-rock in the Nineties. In effect, what some listeners heard wasn’t “old” while others definitely heard a thread of “classicism” it split the difference and got an enormous group of people to appreciate one band in spite of themselves. It was a pretty brilliant approach, and remains an absolutely beautiful love letter for the time now, twenty years later.

8.) Run-D.M.C. – Raising Hell (Legacy/Sony Music) – Run-D.M.C.’s third album, <em>Raising Hell</em>, is one of the most important and influential albums to come out of the second half of the twentieth century. That fact is beyond dispute; it was <em>Raising Hell</em> which really got producer Rick Rubin noticed by a whole crew of hip tastemakers when the album was released in 1986. It was <em>Raising Hell</em> which got hip hop its first crossover hit with rock fans thanks to the cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” Finally, <em>Raising Hell</em> basically plated the seeds which would blossom into the whole rap-rock movement which began in the late Nineties, and that cover of “Walk This Way” got Aerosmith on MTV in addition to buying them another few years of financial solvency before <em>Get A Grip</em> saved them again in 1993. On top of all that, it was <em>Raising Hell</em> which won Run-D.M.C. Its first Grammy Award – thereby getting the group out of the park and onto an international stage. That ledger full of great achievements can all be traced back to one point and it is at the release of Run-D.M.C.’s third LP. That’s an incredible thing – but even more so is the fact that <em>Raising Hell</em> still sounds awesome, thirty years later; to commemorate the anniversary of its release, Legacy Recordings (the catalogue department of Sony Music) has made Raising Hell one of the first in its newly-established Legacy Celebrates line, pressed as a picture disc in high-quality vinyl.

7.) Sloan – One Chord To Another (Geffen/UMe) – It might sound a little bizarre given that Sloan has been releasing plenty of reissues over the last couple of years, but this revisiting of One Chord To Another is a truly essential examination of an album which was already essential listening in its own right. Why? Well, here, the band goes to great lengths to ensure that nothing was left out of the Super Deluxe edition of the set; all the B-sides and a spectacular number of unreleased songs (of which there is no small number of gems) are all included, as are a bunch of other little trinkets for fans to relish in. Add to that a fantastic remix/remaster job done, and even those fans who rightly thought they knew One Chord To Another inside out will find some things to love about this box.

6.) Jimi Hendrix Experience – Smash Hits (Legacy/Sony Music) – I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I’m well-acquainted with Smash Hits by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was the first Hendrix album I ever purchased, to be honest; as a kid of (shall we say) a diminished bank account, Smash Hits looked like a wise buy because it had lots of songs on it that even the most unfamiliar and clueless potential fans were familiar with, and it happened to be on special the day I happened to have enough money to buy anything at all at my then-favorite record store. The fates were aligned, so I bought a CD copy and it proved to be my gateway entry into the Hendrix songbook. This comp was how I came to be inspired to immerse myself in Axis: Bold As Love next, and then Voodoo Soup after that (yes, I owned a copy of Voodoo Soup, reader – some record collections exhibit a learning curve), before eventually getting my head on straight and absorbing all of the Hendrix albums proper – Are You Experienced, Electric Ladyland, Band Of Gypsys, et c.

5.) The Fugees – The Score (Legacy/Sony Music) – Looking back on it, it’s nothing short of astounding how volatile the hip hop scene of the Mid-Nineties was. Before Eminem made dick and fart jokes as well as unveiled homophobia de rigeur, different factions of the Gangsta Rap community were battling both with each other as well as internally for seats at the head table of their genre.The violence that many of the superstars of the day chronicled and found fame with began to reflect back on them as members of the scene began to die violently, and others started to stand as villians in control of it all. It was a very dark time but, because darkness requires a relief in order to illustrate just how dark it is and because thugs need thinkers in order to keep any army moving forward instead of simply imploding, the scene needed acts like The Fugees. Borne not out of South Central Los Angeles or Central Park in New York, The Fugees appeared suddenly on the largest popular radar from the Jersey-side of New York with their sophomore album, The Score, in 1996. Unlike the other artists who were shining in the brightest rays of the spotlight at the time, The Fugees’ music was all about art and soul first; granted, there were shadows of violence and harsh realities coloring the edges of their music, but they were absolutely not their preoccupation. Rather, the primarily focus of The Score was to present the heart of a scene ravaged by violence, but illustrate that it had not been overcome and was not dark at its core; in fact, it could be contended that The Score and The Fugees sought to press the opposite of what was making headlines in hip hop at the time, but do so without blanching their muse to make it palatable to John and Jane Conservative. The Score sought to BE REAL, but not succumb to base emotions; in effect, it would be art. That sentiment remains upheld and undiminished in the Vinyl Me Please limited edition 2LP + 1 7’’ reissue of the album; here, listeners get the record in all its glory pressed into marbled vinyl with an extra single thrown in for good measure. Some critics may complain that it’s nothing more than a needs-first reissue but, with THIS album, that’s all you really need.

4.) Hater – s/t (A&M/UMe) – I must confess that I had never heard of Hater before Ben Shepherd put out In Deep Owl a couple of years ago. I was really, really taken with that album and had been thrilled at the prospect of taking an interview with him when the opportunity came up; in fact, I jumped at it. It was during that interview when I learned about Hater (read: Shepherd was the one who told me about it), but I still hadn’t heard any music. Searching my local record stores revealed nothing (and I am not often given to trolling the internet for bootlegs, nor do I make much use of iTunes), and I let my search end there – ready to let the project fall into my “Whatever happened to?” file. The fates smiled though and I learned that Universal Music Enterprises would be reissuing Hater’s debut on vinyl so I jumped at the opportunity to review it; determined to not my interest lapse from it again.

As it turns out, everything about Hater’s debut album defies expectation. A quick study of the album’s liner notes reveals that the album was made by Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron of Soundgarden, John McBain of Monster Magnet, bassist John Waterman and Devilhead singer Brian Wood [who was also brother of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood –ed], but the sound of it bears few-if-any of the earmarks or sounds which would express a creative kinship with those bands, and it is perfectly unique and instantly attention-grabbing for it.

3.) The Burdocks – Airplane Tracks (Label Obscure) – It might seem unbelievable, but perhaps the greatest creative crime that Sloan ever committed was being so good and becoming so popular and casting such a large shadow in the 1990s and early new millennium that they completely eclipsed all of the other bands which were beginning to appear in Canada’s maritime provinces. Really think about it, reader – Thrush Hermit and Joel Plaskett got started in the early Nineties (and made some pretty spectacular music on their early EPs), but it was a pretty well-kept secret until Clayton Park came out in 1999 – at roughly the same time Sloan lost a bit of ground with the weak performance [compared to Navy Blues and One Chord To Another –ed] of Between The Bridges. The same it true of The Burdocks; a genuinely colossal talent, those who were aware of The Burdocks sang their praises pretty loudly to anyone who might listen. Their praises included comparing the band to Built To Spill, Modest Mouse and even Pavement and, while not every single one of those comparisons could have been mistaken for accurate, they were both permissible and understood because the group’s supporters were clearly making those comparisons in hopes of seeing the band break through. It didn’t happen on the level they hoped for, of course; the wider expanse of what Canadian rock had to offer beyond Neil Young and Sloan didn’t really become apparent until Broken Social Scene and the rest of the crew at Arts & Crafts Records shattered the glass ceiling in 2005 and got the world to at least look beyond the tip of the musical iceberg but, by then, The Burdocks were already ambitiously looking more toward prog with wholly limited results. The band was pretty much done by 2006 (Seth Smith would start Dog Day with Nancy Urich as a side project in 2004 and eventually move toward that outlet full-time) but, happily, the fine folks at Label Obscura still remember The Burdocks – remember how good the band was and remember how dearly they deserved more praise than they ever received – and want to make amends for history’s ignorance. It might be the hope of making the music stand out like a light in the darkness which compelled the label to press the EP into white vinyl too; so it stands out from a sea of black.

2.) The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (Capitol/UMe) – It could be argued that including this year’s reissue of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is a reach because, since it was originally released fifty years ago, the album has been issued and reissued a multitude of times on a multitude of formats. This is true but, as one sinks a stylus into THIS reissue, no one will be able to deny that vinyl isn’t the most ideal format for this album. There is just no substitute.

1.) Cat-Iron – Sings Blues And Hymns (Exit Stencil) – As it plays, that Sings Blues and Hymns doesn’t sound like anything else becomes one of the more exciting and gratifying things about it. Songs like “Don’t Your House Look Lonesome,” “Tell Me, You Didn’t Mean Me No Good” and “Got A Girl In Ferriday, One In Greenwood Town” on the album’s A-side and “When I Lay My Burden Down,” “Old Time Religion,” “Fix Me Right” and “When The Saints Go Marching Home” each tweak convention, and the results are unreal; lyrics (and the obvious ideas behind them) about players two-timing women and making sure they never see each other fly in the face of the single beloved vision declared by common, pivotal lines that other players made famous like “I got a woman way across town/ she’s good to me” and present a grittier image which is further upheld by the “field recording” style and production of the album. The same is true in “Fix Me Right,” where a soldier accepts mortality (“If I die on the battlefield, Lord fix me right”) instead of waving the “When Johnny comes marching home again” flag, and the idea of absolution found in faithful military service in “O, The Blood Done Signed My Name” (where the singer begins with “The blood done washed me clean”). None of these angles could be mistaken for the “standard form” normally found in the blues, and listeners will find themselves quickly revelling in the difference. Because it is not formulaic, the sentiments expressed on Sings Blues and Hymns are instantly attention-grabbing and fans of the blues will find themselves wanting to inhabit them; the “new-ness” is exhilarating. [Bill Adams]

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