Favorite Albums of 2016

Lots of great music was released in 2016, so much so it was hard to decide what made the list. This year, I also included a list of my favorites ranked 11-20. Favorite songs/moments to follow soon.

1. Modern Baseball – Holy Ghost

In a year that seemed anything but normal, a relatively conventional record made by a young group of friends talking about the issues they face every day – both small scale and impossibly large – was my favorite thing I heard all year. Holy Ghost from Philadelphia-based Modern Baseball is an exemplary piece of songwriting buoyed by the band’s two principals, Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens. While Ewald’s compositions feel more patient and hew more towards a verse-chorus-verse structure, Lukens’s feel messier, willed into existence as they went to tape.

The group detailed their personal journeys leading up to the album’s release with the excellent “Tripping in the Dark” mini-documentary, but what really stands out is how much they care about each other. Holy Ghost is the sound of friends sticking together through the hard stuff. It’s sweetly inspirational, and personally motivated me to create something meaningful with my friends for the first time in years. In a year where everything seemed unpredictable, something as simple as that concept just feels right.

2. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

How is it that a singer with an outmoded country lilt can make a sonic love letter to his young son, and manage to make it sound so universal? Well, Sturgill Simpson did it. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a song cycle that serves as the “oh-shit” kit to fatherhood, full of life lessons (including, humorously, “motor oil is motor oil, so keep your engine clean”), stories about his time in the Navy, and (maybe for the first time ever) a truly great Nirvana cover with “In Bloom”. The presence of the Dap Kings horns section adds some looseness not previously found in his catalog – Sailor’s Guide doesn’t really sound like a country record and doesn’t really sound like a rock record, either. It doesn’t sound like anything else, anywhere, which is probably why he’s now the enfant terrible of the Nashville country scene. Whatever. Keep going, dude.

3. Diarrhea Planet – Turn to Gold

I made around a half-dozen trips to Nashville this year, and spent most of the summer there, witnessing a place in transition. The city is dramatically different than when I was there in 1997. Back then it still felt a little hokey country-uncool, but almost twenty years later it has given way to Williamsburg South – artisan coffee shops and restaurants, an exploding population of millennials looking to find something authentic. What that is, well, it’s not really clear, but the city seems to be in a bit of an identity crisis as it deals with these changes as it moves away from being a hotbed of southern tradition.

But then, there’s Diarrhea Planet, who really have nothing to do with that. One of the tentpole acts of the city’s Infinity Cat Records, the group that has four guitarists made THE seminal party rock record of the year with Turn to Gold: one that strikes the balance of premiere musicianship and finally marries it with the grand ambition that they have teased over the course of their previous two records. It sounds bigger, more triumphant, and wildly confident, as if the band just decided they were going to clean up their production because it was just the next logical move they’d make towards world domination. No one can touch them at this point. Don’t even try.

4. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Justin Vernon started the Bon Iver project in 2007 as a guy with an acoustic guitar, and pretty quickly morphed into something that was less guy-with-a-guitar and by 2011’s Bon Iver it thawed into an album of the most deliberate soft rock-as-soul, lush, organic soundscapes this side of Bruce Hornsby.

But with 22, A Million, another transformation. Obscured by technology, bending the realm of what’s physically possible through a literally invented filter – his engineer literally created an instrument called the Messina – Vernon presents another chapter of the Bon Iver story that feels familiar, but still deeply distant. What’s contained on the record is just fractured bits of a life, forget song structure. “Verse chorus verse” means nothing. It’s a whole statement, a composite of parts, not whole wholes. It’s easy to be fascinated by Vernon’s mindset, someone who seems by all intents very accessible, maybe even *normal* by today’s standards, but that’s totally not it. The sounds, his words, almost feel elemental. I don’t know how else to put that. Get a pair of headphones, close your eyes and immerse. It will reveal its gifts to you.

5. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

To the rest of the world, Chicago is rapidly becoming the place in the news where you pretty much hear about climbing murder rates, corruption in city politics and the police department but not a whole lot else. As anyone from a place with a bad reputation, it’s hard to see that there’s so much to be proud of that comes from here. Chance the Rapper is one of them. That he’s gone from a blog rap favorite to world champion in the span of a few years is pretty amazing. He’s a hometown hero just now peaking, and bending the will of the hip-hop world to his vision.

On his third mixtape Coloring Book, with the use of sped up samples, euphoric choruses and gospel choirs, so much of Chance’s sound belongs to early Kanye West – especially that of The College Dropout. Kanye had a chip on his shoulder. Chance doesn’t. His confidence is fully formed. There is real joy and heartbreak in these songs. It’s a kaleidoscopic collection of sounds that are a suite for the Snapchat generation. It’s music that says something and sounds good. If you turned on the radio this year, could you escape “No Problem”? How many times have you heard mention of “Blessings” since they (both songs) entered the lexicon? Coloring Book is genre defining stuff, and Chance is just getting started. It’s impossible to figure out where he’s going next.

6. Pinegrove – Cardinal

Montclair, New Jersey’s Pinegrove released Cardinal in February, but there’s something about it that doesn’t feel of the season. It has worked for all of the changes in climate.. What’s here is eight songs brimming with confidence – emotional without exactly being emo, complex without being cocky, but mostly, having a gorgeous homespun, tossed off nature that seems so unreal when you factor in the with the careful shading in the songs. “Aphasia,” with its slide guitar solo and slow burn climax, may not just be one of the best songs of the year, but maybe one of the best I’ve ever heard.

7. David Bowie – Blackstar

Losing Prince this year was hard – a life very much still in progress, always poking his head out to remind us that he was here and he could do what he wanted when he wanted. With him, there’s a void that will never be filled. But with David Bowie, a man he will cosmically be tied to forever due to the proximity of their deaths, an entirely different story.

Largely in retreat from the public eye for the last decade, David Bowie surprise-released The Next Day in 2013 to massive critical acclaim. He made no statements or appearances related to the album, instead letting the music speak for itself. So, when Blackstar was announced late last year, it was expected this would be more of the same – a quiet late-period reinvention by the artist who did them best. It turned out to be anything but.

Blackstar, released only two days before Bowie’s death in January, is the climax to Bowie’s long goodbye. It’s a record that remakes him one last time, an icon coming to terms with his mortality, filtered through the sounds of the moment (allegedly, the major influence of this record was Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 release, To Pimp a Butterfly.) The title track and “Lazarus” stack up to anything he’s ever released, but the gravity of his situation comes clear with the album’s final “I Can’t Give Everything Away”: “seeing more and feeling less/saying no but meaning yes/this is all I ever meant/that’s the message that I sent.” Man. Ad astra, Starman.

8. Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like A Levee/Vestapol

Hiss Golden Messenger, the name of the group led by M.C. Taylor, completely obliterated any false notion I had of the group. I assumed with the name it was some sort of art rock project and never truly paid attention. That is, until I heard the title track from Heart Like A Levee: a beautiful, galloping ballad that is the centerpiece of a gorgeously constructed album full of songs that teeter lines of folk, country, bluegrass and rock. It’s just brilliantly pretty shit. Songs like “Biloxi” and “Happy Day (Sister My Sister)” flow like water. Also, be sure to listen to the bonus album “Vestapol” (included with deluxe editions of the album) that stack up to anything on the record it accompanies.

9. Touche Amore – Stage Four

Grief and loss are an impossible thing to quantify. Is there a way to even begin to convey the experience of losing someone? Not really. But with Touche Amore’s fourth record Stage Four, they get as close as they can to illustrating the unending bottom of having your life completely rocked. Stage Four deals bluntly through the harrowing experience of vocal Jeremy Bolm losing his mother to cancer in 2014. There are only a few moments on the album’s eleven songs that relent.

You feel Bolm’s raw throated vocals nearly moment, with one more line bruising than the other – “like a wave/like the rapture/something you love is gone/someone you love is gone” and the soul annihilating, hope-this-is-not true: “she passed away about an hour ago/when you were onstage living the dream”. Only on “Skyscraper,” the album’s closing track, a duet with Julien Baker, is there some kind of resolve – “you live there under the lights”, before segueing into the last voicemail Bolm’s mother left for him. It’s about picking up a prescription at CVS, but there’s something beautiful about how innocuous it is, and fitting that she’s the last voice you hear. If only this album never had to be made in the first place.

10. Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings tied with A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings

Sometimes there are records that exist just to get you through. The stuff that’s always worked for me is the confessional, heart-on-your-sleeve, big guitars and shouty choruses. Beach Slang makes those kind of records. The band’s pair of EP’s in 2014 and last year’s insta-classic debut The Things We Do To Find People Like Us were thrilling documents of Replacements-style slop and romance with a Jawbreaker glaze. It’s kind of hard to hate.

Less than a year later, they returned with their second full-length, A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings, a record that takes what works and refines the focus and gets in and gets out before the sun sets. The album establishes James Alex as a workmanlike songwriter. Nothing here is particularly revelatory, but it strikes me as more of a continuation of what makes Beach Slang great – driving rockers like “Atom Bomb” with the irresistible lyric “I was born with trouble in me” and “Spin The Dial,” which is probably the sweetest song on a list of songs with harder edges. The Jawbreaker influence is a little stronger here: James Alex’s vocals are a little more obscured by fuzz, and his and the guitars cut like sharpened knives. The effect is twofold – If you’re a fan, you’ll notice the nuance, and if you’re just coming to them for the first time, it’s a complete introduction.

Their music sounds shambolic and sweet, full of positive energy and tales of raging against the dying of the light. It feels instant and pure, and A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings captures that energy again. Since its release, the band has experienced some major lineup turnover. Whether that influences the next record they do remains to be seen. But for now, we have this to hold on to.

A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

With A Tribe Called Quest widely being heralded as the greatest hip-hop group ever to do it, it felt hard to contextualize being a generation removed from their heyday. Their albums – classics like The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders still feel like classics today, but sometimes it was hard to find where they fit in the deluge of great hip-hop that exists today. That is until they released their final record, We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, recorded in the last year of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor’s life.

Recorded and almost produced entirely by Q-Tip at his home in New Jersey, the final chapter of the ATCQ story is full of rhymes that feel classic Tribe, guest spots by longtime associates (Consequence, and an insanely inspired Busta Rhymes) and heavy hitters like Kanye West, Elton John and Kendrick Lamar. Phife Dawg feels alive and vibrant on this material, and you find yourself reminding yourself he didn’t make it to the end of the recording process. The result echoes in something that feels like Tribe, current without sounding wholly modern. In a time where many hip hop records are piecemeal done by different producers in different studios, the effort here feels unified – everyone working towards one vision to make one final product. The sound here is a little hazy, the samples tastefully chosen, led by a group of individuals hellbent on giving a sendoff to the greatest group to ever do it. It worked, but it also showed us that almost twenty years after their last album, they are still without peers. What a legacy to leave.

Albums 11-20

11. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
12. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
13. Amanda Shires – My Piece of Land
15. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
16. PUP – The Dream is Over
17. The Hotelier – Goodness
18. Music Band – Wake Up Laughing
19. Angel Olsen – My Woman
20. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pretty Years

Four Days In The Life

I’m finally starting to decompress from a week in New York (that really began in Chicago the day before with improbably sharing a photo with Bruce Springsteen) where I saw the Hold Steady four times in four days at Brooklyn Bowl. As expected, it was an incredible (albeit sometimes stressful) experience, but that’s another story for a different day. What struck me is so much how so many people I came into contact with were really riding the wave of “nostalgia,” if you can call the celebration of a ten-year record just that. I suppose it’s possible, or it’s a sign of me aging, when I talked to more than one person that lamented for not being around for ‘the scene’, a series of what seemed to be halcyon days that really weren’t, more a lot of good times punctured by bad decisions or inexperience, but still remembered the same. Either way, I didn’t quite feel a hearkening back to the past as much as I did really love seeing so many lapsed fans that kind of tuned out at the turn of the decade when the future of the band seemed a little murky.

Photo by Rich Tarbell

Photo by Rich Tarbell

I mean, I get that, the early ‘10’s Hold Steady was a series of experiments that didn’t quite gel completely, trying to make due with Franz Nicolay’s departure and redefine a sound. But what we DID get is Steve Selvidge, a member of the band whose presence seems so vital it’s hard to imagine what the band would be like without him – the fact that Franz has returned to the fold with Steve in tow is not an abdication of what truly made The Hold Steady great in the first place, instead, it’s an embarrassment of riches. (I have quietly referred to this wishful thinking-turned-reality lineup as SuperSteady for many years, and oh my word, they did they NOT disappoint.) What these shows, these three reissues have told us is that The Hold Steady, in whatever form they are in these days and going forward are still capital-F, capital-D Fucking Dangerous.

Yes, they’re my favorite band, of course I’m going to say that. I defy anyone who has caught any of this year’s seven gigs to tell me different. They don’t really need to make any new music right now. The canon has been established. How mindblowing is it to hear Franz add genius flourishes to songs that he didn’t play on? Harmonica on “Sweet Part of the City”? Brilliant keys on “Spinners” (still in the running for one of THS’s best-ever songs) and the mind melt of bringing himself to the dance on “The Weekenders” which is surviving the years as one of the band’s weirdest compositions from a not-too happy era.

I have a stake in it, I know. November 30’s encore of “The Ballad of the Midnight Hauler,” a song I’ve gently requested from Craig for at least seven years before finally giving up, was a major surprise, something I’d never thought I’d hear again, much less get a shout out for my birthday. While I’ve been recognized before (it never stops feeling amazing), nothing tops that. I can’t stop smiling about it. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me.

The thing that keeps flashing back to me are the faces. The faces of all of these people I’ve gotten to know over the years, whether in person by chance through the internet but never in person until now and countless others. I’ve watched all these people transform of the years, grow up, get older, turn into better versions of themselves, remember their journeys, remember mine, and remember it all still feels pretty sweet. I hope to never forget that, forget you, and hope that somehow, someway, we’ll all find each other again no matter what becomes of this band. It was a celebration of you guys, us guys and this beautiful, messy thing we all created together. That’s an amazing thing.

The Chicago Cubs Won the World Series

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series.

I have been repeating this to myself since Wednesday just to make sure it’s real. It can’t possibly be. But it is. They went to the World Series, were down three games to one, and won. This team won a championship for the first time in 108 years. There are so many ways and historical benchmarks to point to in just how long that is. There is no way to describe what it’s like to root for a team that literally never won, has never gone to the World Series in your lifetime (or in the lifetime of anyone under 71), and do it. I remember 1998. I remember 2003. I remember 2007 and 2008. Last year, too. This year had to be more of the same, right?

img_1845No. It wasn’t.

Sure, they were competing some years, frustratingly, sometimes epically bowing out when they really needed to win. More than the Boston wins, more than the White Sox win, the Cubs World Series win challenges what you know about, well, anything. How do you even make sense of something that just feels purely wonderful when you’re predisposed to expect the worst?

Neither of my parents are sports fans. I came to baseball when I was seventeen, around the time of the Cubs 2003 playoff run. It was thrilling – six outs from the World Series before the collapse. But that didn’t break my heart. Game 7 did. I remember being hopeful the next morning after Game 6 and Steve Rizzo painfully contorting his face and saying “no, you don’t understand, it’s over.” I didn’t want to believe it. He was right. They lost 9-6.

img_1954-jpgWhen I got my first apartment in college, I lived a mile from Wrigley Field. I could see it out my window. My school offered discount bleacher tickets through the newspaper, and I’d go more than a few times and soak up the atmosphere – this was the early Lou Pinella team. Ted Lilly was my guy, basically on the premise that he inexplicably signed on with the Cubs after Toronto offered him an identical deal to stay there. He declined, citing a “change of scenery”, but that’s just because he got in a fight with the Blue Jays manager. That’s beside the point. His actual full name is Theodore Roosevelt Lilly III, which is just ridiculous. He’s still the only individual player I own a shirt for. Apparently he’s a Special Assistant to the President/General Manager so I think that means he probably gets a ring. Amazing.

Portrait of a young Jordan at 13.

Portrait of a young Jordan at 13.

That was almost the fun of being a fan. Through the playoff run, Jordan, who has loved the Cubs since I have known him, just texted each other names of Cubs of years past that we knew better for their funny names or terrible play. How would the team pull defeat from the jaws of victory this time? During the rollercoaster of Game 7, a masterpiece if there ever was one, maybe the greatest game ever – no, fuck it – DEFINITELY the greatest game ever, I felt stricken after the two run homer to tie.

But then they bounced back in the tenth after the rain delay. I jumped into Jordan’s arms not unlike Jason Varitek did into Jonathan Papelbon’s arms when the Red Sox won in 2007. We looked at each other in disbelief. This World Series victory is for everyone who ever cared about the team. Die hard, bandwagon or lapsed. It’s a feel-good story by a team that was so fun to watch. With the Bryant to Rizzo final out, every disappointment we had about the Cubs and what we thought knew about them evaporated, leaving nothing but unbridled joy.

There are so many more words and things I could say about this. Baseball is a sport that you can access on so many different levels. If you want to obsess about the history like me, that’s all available. If you like stats, you can do that. If you don’t get any of it, watching players hit baseballs into the stands or watching a guy masterfully throw pitches that dudes whiff on is your thing, go nuts. You don’t have to be totally invested if you don’t want to. The Cubs have always been a great example of that.

But now, somehow, improbably, we are on the other side of that. Of course, this team was built to accomplish this specific goal, but it doesn’t mean anything unless there’s the follow through. The Cubs are champions, and for future generations, it won’t carry that same desperation and crushing feeling of failure. Maybe they’ll win more championships in the next few years, and fans will complain about their dominance. Maybe they never win another and the 2016 Cubs will turn into this generation’s version of the 1985 Bears – one magical team surrounded with a few years of really good teams.

Whatever happens, there will always be 2016. A year that’s just wrought with so much horrible shit and an election that never seems like it’s going to end also contains a World Series between two teams that never won and they captivated us until the final moment (and then some). They really didn’t win that game as much as they didn’t lose it. The margin of error in the 10th was either get the out, or have the other guys swing a bat into the record books. It’s amazing as something as simple as a game can make a person so happy.

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-4-02-12-pmWalking around Chicago and seeing all of the hats and shirts and jerseys has been remarkable. We’re all sharing in this one moment together. Even Steve Rizzo, who I haven’t seen in a decade, has checked in: “This is unbelievable.” It’s uniting generations, giving us reasons to celebrate those who didn’t quite make it to see this moment, and turning what we know to be real and true about something as escapist as a baseball team on its head. Enjoy the moment as long as you can and cut out the outside noise. Even if the Cubs win the World Series again, it will never be quite the same as this. It couldn’t be. It’s a singular moment that comes once in a generation. I am so grateful I lived to see it and be part of it.

Mourning View

morning viewEarlier this week, Morning View by Incubus turned fifteen. While it may not have aged as well as some, it very much played a part in my musical development and remains one of my favorite records. It’s a good one, and one that somehow manages to sound of its time and completely out of it all at once.

October 2001 was a bottomless, scary time. 9/11 had just happened, the country was literally putting the pieces back together. Every news report fixated on the wreckage at Ground Zero. I was a sophomore in high school, cognizant that something massive had taken a few hundred miles from me – but I didn’t know anyone that had been affected, or anyone that I knew that was directly impacted. But you could tell in the air that things were about to change in a big way.

Rock music at that time was probably in one of the worst periods as it ever had been – rap rock was still very much en vogue – and I was still consisting on a steady diet of whatever I heard on the radio and was still months away from hearing about a local Chicago site called Pitchfork Media. Incubus, at the time was not far separated from the pack of the rap rock bands, a shapeless group of Southern California dudebros with loud guitars and a dude who sang with soul but none of the chutzpah. 1999’s Make Yourself was a bonafide hit, containing “Pardon Me” and “Drive” both nice singles, especially the latter, which appealed to the sensitivity and found in 14-year-old boys living in the suburbs. These songs have somehow have survived through the years on alt-rock radio in varying forms, which is kind of amazing, considering so many of their peers have not.

For their follow up, Incubus famously decamped to a house in Malibu on a street called “Morning View Drive”. The resulting album from the sessions is something that feels a little spacier and what is probably best described as “pocket ambience”. (Also, before we go any further, I want to mention this was the first and last record I pre-ordered at Sam Goody at Spring Hill Mall.)

For those weightless moments, there are also the hard-edged rock ones – “Nice to Know You” and “Circles” with punishing guitars, “Wish You Were Here,” one of last decade’s very best alt rock singles, all ‘Bob Marley poster on the walls of my room at my parents house” poetry aside. Songs like “Warning” with a slow-burn churn and “Echo” were soft without being entirely saccharine. “Aqueous Transmission,” with its use of a Chinese instrument called the pipa, was unlike anything any teenage suburban midwesterner had ever heard.

Somehow, in pre-9/11 America, Incubus made a record that soothed what was about to come. Released a month after the attacks, It was angry and sensitive, but nuanced enough for teenagers to find meaning. It was art for people who didn’t really get art, and was a direct route to making new friends and relating through music at school.

Incubus never again made a record as balanced as Morning View. What has come since has always been intriguing (seriously, Light Grenades, people), nor did they ever make something as fluid, either. It’s a record that legitimately feels hazy, capturing the mood of its era, but somehow cutting through the gritted-teeth anxiety of a terrible time. That’s why I remember it.

John K. Samson’s Winter Wheat is Part Postscript, New Beginning

jks_winterwheatI dont claim to know the entire Weakerthans catalog, or really know much about John K. Samson, but I can tell you that the release of “Winter Wheat” is an album that hews closest to a new Weakerthans release as we may ever get. Perhaps that’s why he utilizes the band’s former rhythm section throughout the release.

Samson’s work is kind of a curiosity to an American like myself. Pastoral descriptions of Canada, a place that is easy to generalize as one-note, nice and America-lite, are always fascinating. He’s a songwriter whose turn of phrase strikes the balance of sensitive and strange – opener “Select All Delete” begins with the lyrics “That hashtag wants me dead/but I don’t mind.” Virtute the cat reappears, a reoccuring character from Samson’s Weakerthans songs A warning: that song, “Virtute at Rest,” is a goddamn heartbreaker.

Samson’s lyrical prowess is not done justice through an album review. He’s definitely one of the world’s greatest living songwriters, lesser known to a mass audience, ducking out and re-emerging every few years with songs that have earned the right to be dissected, quoted and shared by those that know his work best. Whether “Winter Wheat” is truly the postscript to the Weakerthans or is the next evolution in the long musical history of John K. Samson remains to be seen. We’ll know eventually. For now, take your time, listen over and over and pass it on. Like all great stories, they’re meant to be shared. “Winter Wheat” is one of them.

Winter Wheat is out today on ANTI-.

The Wild Heart

This video has been making the rounds lately in large part is that it is an uncredited sample found on “10 d E A T h b R E a s T” by Bon Iver from his new album, “22, A Million”.

I can’t stop watching it. While getting prepped for a Rolling Stone photo shoot, Stevie Nicks effortlessly (and gorgeously) performs “Wild Heart” like it is as essential as breathing. It’s a performance that never was supposed to be, somehow surviving so many changes in technology to make it to the internet 30 years later. It’s remarkable that something as tossed off as this has impact now. Watch it. You will more than once.