2016: On The Cusp Of A Rock Awakening



esperanzaspaldingOK, so we lost a lot of great musicians in 2016, and world events were unsettling to say the least. But all things considered, it was a pretty good year for music, with some older artists hitting late-inning home runs and some newer acts seemingly approaching greatness. I really get the sense that Rock is in an exciting period of transition, with so many artists both young and old willing to take risks in the search for new sounds and new approaches. I honestly believe that we are on the cusp of a new Rock awakening. Here are my selections for Top 10 Albums of 2016.

 

10. The Claypool Lennon Delirium – Monolith Of Phobos

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People sometimes forget that Sean Lennon inherited artistic genes from his mother too, one of the most famous avant-garde musicians who ever lived. With this in mind his musical partnership with mad genius Les Claypool seems like such a perfect fit. This album won’t be everyone’s cup of tea — it’s way out there sometimes — but to me it felt fresh and wild and unique. Lennon and Claypool seem to bring out the very best in each other’s oddly twisted personalities, flavoring their distinctly original take on classic proggy sounds with wit and whimsy. Claypool’s jaw-dropping virtuosity on the bass was no surprise, but Lennon’s lambent talents on guitar and vocals certainly were, and I really hope these guys keep making music together.

 

9. Rolling Stones – Blue And Lonesome

This is like one of those albums that NASA would put into a Voyager satellite to introduce extraterrestrial civilizations to human culture, except in this case it landed back on Earth in 2016. The album captures — for a new generation on this planet — the electrifying intensity of those early-sixties blues and R&B recordings, recorded live and hot and off the floor. But this ain’t the 1964 Stones cheekily imitating the old bluesmen, this is a band with the chops and the savvy to actually be the old bluesmen. Sometimes Jagger sounds like an old man and sometimes he sounds like he’s 25, but either way he and his mates are as authentic as it gets, and god knows there’s a hunger for authenticity out there.

 

8. case / lang / veirs – case / lang / veirs

Take three fiercely independent singer-songwriters who don’t know each other very well, put them in a room and tell them to write songs together, and you’ve got a prescription not only for bruised egos but quite possibly broken bones as well. Unless of course the singer-songwriters are women, in which case you’ve got a much better chance of co-operation and a successful collaboration. k.d. lang admired the work of Neko Case and Laura Veirs and suggested the three get together and create some new songs, not as a three-point harmony trio but more like a real band where each member’s individual strengths are given a chance to shine. The end result is one of the finest collections of songs released this year, where even the production and arrangements are well-conceived and beautifully implemented. See what a little co-operation can accomplish?

 

7. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Up to this point Bon Iver was widely considered a balladeer, a singer-songwriter of deeply personal, atmospheric songs who used electronica mostly as a way to process his distinctive falsetto vocals. Folk electronica, if you will. But on this, his third album, Bon Iver takes folk electronica to new horizons with beats and kinetic energy, a huge and I think welcome departure from his drony balladeer thing. The album contains some beautiful acoustic guitar, piano and horns, but it also includes tracks like “10 (Deathbreast)” which has him spitting out spoken lyrics over a driving cascade of electronic beats, sounding more like Kanye West than a folk artist. In fact, West had sought out Bon Iver’s recording expertise for one of the rapper’s earlier albums, so I guess what goes around comes around. Rock happens when different musical genres come together, and this album sounds like something new being born.

 

6. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come To Expect

Alex Turner has talent, charisma, and a willingness to take artistic chances, a great combination for any musician. As swaggering front man for the Arctic Monkeys, Turner gained fame for his wickedly clever power pop, but as a partner in The Last Shadow Puppets he takes that wicked cleverness on a completely different tack. The Rock elements are still there, but the defining sound on this album is a standout orchestra section arranged by the brilliant Canadian violinist and producer Owen Pallett. It gives the album a very Euro feel as the band pays discreet homage to the various pop styles that make use of strings – ‘50s doo-wop, ‘60s soul, ‘70s disco, ‘80s spy movies – as well as some really original arrangements that can easily stand on their own. I don’t understand why this album wasn’t a huge hit.

 

5. The Tragically Hip – Man Machine Poem

With this album The Hip completes their transformation from literate, edgy roadhouse Rockers to literate, mature Rock gurus, comfortable in their wisdom yet searching for truth more rigorously than ever. After 30 years together the Hip keeps growing as a band, boldly adding new textures and instrumentation and themes and emotions to their kit bag, while at the same time keeping their kick-ass edge as sharp as it ever was. If, as seems likely, this is to be the band’s last album due to Gord Downie’s serious health issues, then by god what a way to go, and what an inspiring lesson in personal and artistic growth for the rest of us.

 

4. Warpaint – Heads Up

There are some pretty sophisticated Rock sensibilities at work here on the L.A. quartet’s third album. Originally an atmospheric/chill type outfit, Warpaint displays a subtle but still striking versatility on this album, skillfully and seamlessly weaving analog and electronic instrumentation together as well as anybody has ever done it. One minute bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg and drummer Stella Mozgawa are laying down big fat beats, the next minute guitarist Theresa Wayman is serving up soaring or spiky licks over an electronic bed. Emily Kokal’s plaintive lead vocals may not be the strongest, but the band’s three-point harmonies are outstanding and lay at the heart of Warpaint’s sonic signature. This is definitely a band to watch.

 

3. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression

So the story goes that Iggy Pop finally had enough of the rat race and wanted to drop out after recording one last album. Ever the showman, Iggy decides that if he’s going out, he’s going out in style, so he turns to Josh Homme for help. How could this not be a recipe for a great album? These are two Rock giants coming together. Homme, one of a handful of artists destined to carry the torch for Rock & Roll deep into the new century, brought his unique gifts of edgy songcraft together with Iggy’s brutally frank street truths, sprinkled it with a little anti-materialist populism, and helped create a bold and original statement, not just for Iggy, but I really think for the ages. Homme deserves a co-credit on the album, but he’s too generous a soul to want it. Meanwhile Iggy keeps dreaming “about getting away to a new life / where there’s not so much fucking knowledge”, and I have to admit that does sound appealing.

 

2. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

I’ve always subscribed to the theory that the greatest artists are the ones that push the envelope so far until they discover new territory. Well Esperanza Spalding is one brilliant artist and with this album she has found musical ground where nobody has stood before, and that is saying something. Sure, the lithe vocals, explosive bass lines and complicated jazz time signatures are all still there, but this time around she brings thundering and soaring guitars into the mix, making the album sound at times more like prog than jazz. Think Joni Mitchell meets Frank Zappa and Shuggie Otis, or maybe St. Vincent with the angular corners rounded out. On top of all this, Emily’s D+Evolution is a concept album where Spalding’s alter ego wrestles wordily with powerful thoughts on love, gender, race and class in the 21st Century. This is a dense, rich album that delivers increasing rewards with every listen.

 

1. David Bowie – Blackstar

There will never be another album like this one, just as sure as there will never be another David Bowie. It’s an album about Bowie’s life and about his death, and it is loaded with riches. I was never all that big on droning medieval melodies, but I now love the five minutes of it on the title track because “at the center of it all” lies the shimmering beauty of the middle section. Kudos to my colleague Jordan for pointing out the “whore” of the raucous second track is quite likely Bowie’s cancer. “Lazarus” still makes me weep sometimes because I can’t get the haunting video out of my head, but it has sure given me some insights into death that were never quite available to me before. “Sue” is cinema verite in modern jazz wrapping, while “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” are as beautiful as anything Bowie has ever made. How long will it be before this album starts showing up on greatest of all-time lists?

 

Honorable Mentions

Paul Simon – Stranger To Stranger
Wilco – Schmilco
Charles Bradley – Changes
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Andrew Bird – Are You Serious
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial
Anderson Paak – Malibu

Photo- Esperanza Spalding; credit: By JBreeschoten (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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3 comments on “2016: On The Cusp Of A Rock Awakening
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