Hasta la Vista, 2016.

The “2016 sucks” meme definitely has a (big) grain of truth to it, though for me, it was a better year than 2015, that’s for sure. But, on the positive side, there was some really great music. So in keeping with the end of the year stuff, here are some lists for those that like to explore music recommendations by others.

I waited until the year was completely over before doing this, as I’ve found worthy new music in the last four weeks of the year. Also, this is not a “best of” list, as “best” is really subjective when referencing music. There is no “best music” – if you like it then it is the best … for you. So this is my FAVORITE music of 2016.

Keith EmersonFirst, though, 2016 sucked, and for me that was because I lost two musician heroes in one year. David Bowie, Prince, George Michael … they got plenty of coverage, worthy or not. The two that hit me the hardest were Keith Emerson and Greg Lake; I was ELP #1 fan in the ’70’s, collecting all of their records, and seeing them every chance possible. I even played air keyboards, because Emerson made them so cool. I will never forget one concert wandering around the seating concourse at the end where the stage was situated. Emerson’s Moog setup was stage right, and as he was soloing I stood above him, with SLR camera in hand (it was okay to take pictures at concerts back then), waiting for a great shot. He looked up and had the biggest grin on his face as he saw me; he was having so much fun playing his heart out.

Greg LakeGreg Lake had the voice I wish I could have had. Powerful yet expressive, no other singer could have sung those lyrics. I think that “Pirates” off of Works, Volume 1 is one of the greatest vocal performances in progressive rock; a virtual lyrical movie that could have/should have tipped into overwrought schmaltz, but instead soars with full conviction.

ELP were THE band for me back then, and I miss having them still in this world (stay healthy and productive, Carl Palmer). Sadly, we won’t hear a “Piano Concerto, No. 2” from Emerson, and the world will have to make do with their incredible albums, from Emerson, Lake & Palmer through Works, Volume 2 – thankfully we have those. Peace be with them for the ages …

On to the happier moments of 2016.

Favorites

  • Frost*, Falling SatellitesFrost*, Falling Satellites – Yep, the “*” is part of their name. I’d never heard of this group before 2016, but got turned on to them through AllMusic.com, ProgReport.com and Spotify, and was completely blown away. This is prog rock in the driving vein of Kansas and Styx, i.e., lean instrumentation with a clear pop structure … until it takes a turn midway into the dense, thick Genesis sound of Duke and “Home by the Sea/Second Home by the Sea.” Probably the release I’ve played the most this past year … and it will stay in rotation for good, long while. Closer “British Wintertime” is one of the most beautiful tunes this year, and gives me chills listening to it. This opened my ears to the current prog genesis happening today beyond just Steven Wilson and Opeth for me. Listen to it LOUD.
  • Anderson/Stolt, Inventions of KnowledgeAnderson/Stolt, Invention of Knowledge – Continuing with the year’s outpouring of really good progressive rock, an old master shows he still has it; Jon Anderson sounds glorious on this release. Anderson is a singer that could sing a phone book over a jackhammer and make it music. This release was my introduction to Roine Stolt (I haven’t been a listener of The Flower Kings), and kudos to him for getting Anderson back to where he belongs. This release sounds more like Yes than Yes has sounded like itself of old since Keys to Ascension. My only complaint is one I steal from the movie Amadeus – too many notes/instruments. The instrumentation changes practically every other bar, and every other bar is a tempo/chord change, and it makes it a dense, and somewhat untuneful composition. Still, it warms this old Yes fan’s heart mightily to hear Anderson properly framed by dazzling musicianship once again.
  • The Pineapple Thief, Your WildernessThe Pineapple Thief, Your Wilderness – Another fabulous prog rock release, and by one of the older prog guard that I – truthfully – never really followed. No reason why, I just never got around to listening to them. But this release again got a rave write-up by ProgReport.com, and since they were so dead-on about Frost*, I gave it a try. It is a dark, orchestral, moody set with a lush production that makes its somewhat sad edge even more potent. Drums by Porcupine Tree alum Gavin Harrison really lift the works up, and the interplay between vocalist Bruce Soord and guitarist Darran Charles makes these tunes mini episodes. The closest comparison would be a somewhat morose Supertramp with Pocupine Tree nuances. Indeed, John Helliwell of Supertramp plays clarinet on one tune. Really highly recommended, and with headphones.
  • Steven Wilson, 4½Steven Wilson, – Steven Wilson continues to dazzle with every new release, and this “EP” release is among his best, yet again. This set of “left over” compositions from previous sessions makes you wonder what he throws away! Opener “My Book of Regrets” is among the best he has written, though the rest continue the streak. The only downside is this is just six tunes long. Wilson is the leading musician of today’s progressive rock genre, expertly mixing his influences (Yes, King Crimson, ELP, Genesis, Jethro Tull, etc.) with a contemporary vision that makes him singularly unique. This stands with the genre-defining Hand. Cannot. Erase and The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) releases.
  • The Amazing, AmbulanceThe Amazing, Ambulance – I first heard of The Amazing with their 2015 release, Picture You, on Spotify. That was one of my favorites in 2015, but they upped their game even more with Ambulance. Elegant, dreamy, intimate, contemplative – this is an album for sitting on the bluffs above the Pacific ocean, fog enveloping you, listening to the waves crash endlessly below you. The best description is slowed down shoegaze, with more open, shimmering, and airy instrumentation. The guitar work is beautiful (three guitarists!), the lyrics enigmatic. This, along with Frost*’s Falling Satellites, and GoGo Penguin’s Man Made Object (see below) are my 2016’s most essential listening.
  • The Boxer Rebellion, Ocean by OceanThe Boxer Rebellion, Ocean by Ocean – A previous favorite returns with a great new release. Though The Boxer Rebellion lost a guitarist, the replacement – Andrew Smith – polishes the raw edges off of their sound for a brilliant, rich, sound that draws from U2 and Coldplay, balancing echoing guitar work with layers of keyboards and vocals. I still think their 2013 Promises benefited more from that raw guitar edge of the old guitarist, making the tunes on that release more focused and driving, Ocean by Ocean has a billowing, layered beauty to it that draws one in. “Weapon,” “Big Ideas,” and “Let It Go” are some of the best tunes The Boxer Rebellion have done.
  • The Cave Singers, BansheeThe Cave Singers, Banshee – I have liked every release by The Cave Singers but, like Naomi, this one took a little time to grow on me. The band’s compositions have subtleties that really take time to sink in. Banshee is a return towards the harder, rougher edges of No Witch and the loose folk of Welcome Joy, shrugging off some of the pop polish of Naomi. I think that Pete Quirk is getting even better as a vocalist, and this release finds the addition of bassist Morgan Henderson really integrating into the band as a fluid quartet.
  • The Lumineers, CleopatraThe Lumineers, Cleopatra – Like Banshee, this took some spins to discover the richness of this release. The Lumineers (first album) was one of the great nouveau folk releases of 2012 and this decade. After many listens (and hearing some of these songs in concert), Cleopatra should be compared to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad. The introspection in the lyrics combined with the almost black-and-white production quality make this release not as captivating on first listen, but richly rewarding over time. Many of the songs are deeply personal to Wesley Schultz, and the instrumentation by Jeremiah Fraites often finds the emotional core in the lyrics. Rather than seeing this as a reaction to the first album (which was a gem), this is an evolution out of the more introspective “Charlie Boy” and “Slow It Down” on that first release. “Sleep On The Floor,” “Gun Song,” and especially “Long Way From Home” find personal salvation in the memories that make us who we are, made by those we love. Fans of Springsteen’s acoustic solo records really should give this a more attentive listen, and fans of the first album should give it a chance – it is not that different in composition and performance, just tempo and writing. I look forward to their future releases, and seeing The Lumineers continue to grow into fine songwriters capturing the big themes of the heart through personal and intimate experiences.
  • Nik Bärtsch's Mobile, ContinuumNik Bärtsch’s Mobile, Continuum (ECM refuses to license to Spotify) – This is one of the most intriguing releases of the year. Nik Bärtsch explores the avant-garde/post-modern/minimalist vein within the confines of jazz, creating an almost acoustic version of electronic/techno; steady repetition (by any of the instruments) slowly allow compositions to evolve over the length of the tune, creating almost a trance-like nature. To quote AllMusic‘s review, their sound is “… minimal, interlocking, contrapuntal, polyrhythmic grooves …”. There is no harmony or melody, just groove and slow, rhythmic improvisation. This is somewhat similar to what Hauschka tried to achieve on Salon des Amateurs by creating acoustic house or club dance music.  The compositions on Continuum are for listening to with one’s full attention.
  • GoGo Penguin, Man Made ObjectGoGo Penguin, Man Made Object – This jazz release edges a little more into music with harmony and melody, though still exploring integrating electronic and indie elements into their acoustic piano/bass/drum trio’s sound within the post-modern, minimalist style. The result is more episodic than Bärtsch, with a real driving beat and full, almost soundtrack-like compositions. This blew me away when I first heard it, and makes for a great release to drive to. It floats along with an introspective feel that swoops from kinetic to quiet within the tunes. Another that demands one’s full attention. FYI their previous release, V2.0, is also magnificent.
  • Snarky Puppy, Culcha VulchaSnarky Puppy, Culcha Vulcha – Okay, you gotta love the band’s name. It is a name I always noted previously, but a band I never really got around and listened to. An intriguing review of Culcha Vulcha in DownBeat Magazine made me search it out and listen to it, and it has really grown on me. Snarky Puppy ride a fine line between lively, smooth, and instrumentally adventurous pop jazz without tipping over into Yellowjackets snooze jazz. The interplay between band members reminds me of the Pat Metheny Group, with the lines flowing from one instrument to the next all the while keeping the tune moving along. Ethnic, soul, funk, and bluesy nuances make each tune a mini-suite. The production on this release is incredible – amazing stereo separation. A fun, pop jazz release that really showcases the musicians’ collective chops, and they do have chops.
  • Bill Laurance, Live at Union ChapelBill Laurance, Live at Union Chapel – This is one of the late finds I alluded to in the opening. Another good review in DownBeat Magazine, and the notation that Bill Laurance is the keyboardist for Snarky Puppy made me curious. Like Culcha Vulcha, the production for a live album is outstanding. The music is even more cinematic and episodic, like the best of the Pat Metheny Group, with sweeping drama unfolding into mini-suites and epics. The between-song chatter is also fun. The musicians sound like their playing at their peak, and the interplay is amazing. All instrumental, it borders between jazz and soundtrack-type music.

More on the playlist in 2016:

  • Adam Torres, Pearls to Swine – Another late find from NPR’s All Music Considered blog and their “Best of 2016.” Torres sings in a high falsetto against forlorn violin in gentle folk tunes that create a cool, detached intimacy.
  • Hands Like Houses, Dissonants – The best hard rock release I’ve heard in awhile, and one that has the pop chops of Van Halen without ever being pop – because as polished as the songs are they have a real raw edge. It too needs to be played LOUD.
  • Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool – This release is taking its sweet time growing on me. It is like a cross between The King of Limbs and Kid A.
  • Santana, Santana IV – A time warp to 1971, and a really good one at that. Much of this release has the magic from the AbraxasSantana III era. The band hasn’t lost its touch.
  • Wintersleep, The Great Detachment – A find poking around AllMusic; really tight, hard pop songs with a strong sense that this Nova Scotia band enjoys their work.
  • Michel Benita, Ethics, River Silver (another ECM release) – A beautiful, quiet, introspective set of world-jazz fusion, with emphasis on the jazz. The unique instrumentation (flügelhorn, bass, drums, guitars, electronics, and band member Mieko Miyazaki plays koto) gives it a dreamy edge that is seductive.
  • DJ Shadow, The Mountain Will Fall – This ranges from rap to … musique concrete if you ask me. The release is far more adventurous than just trip hop, with the samples and loops often forming an abstract canvas grounded by a beat. Only a few are songs, and have a hip hop beat. This is more “composed” in the sense that Shadow uses electronics and loops more than samples.

So, 2016 may have sucked, but it was a really good year in music (despite all those who passed away). I was fortunate to see The Cave Singers, Coldplay, The Lumineers, The Boxer Rebellion, and DJ Shadow in concert this year. Particular nods go to Coldplay, The Lumineers, and The Boxer Rebellion live, as they really worked hard to entertain the audience by making all feel like they were there solely for us, performances that were intimate and personal. Highly recommend that you go see them.

All of those links above can take you to finding and listening to some really great, adventurous music. I hope you enjoy the journey.

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