Friday, December 23, 2016

Dr. Spin's Best of 2016 part 2

Photo credit: Kate Wurtzel
I saw a meme a few weeks ago that posed the question “are you the same person now as you were at this time last year?” While I feel mostly confident that I am the same person, my world has changed so dramatically over the course of the year that the proposition doesn’t seem unrealistic. It is reasonable, however, to say that life now does not look the same as it did at the end of last year - to say the least.

I began this year as an Austinite, teaching band at a troubled middle school. By the end of February, however, the pace began to pick up. My second daughter EJ was born, I gave notice at my school, got a new job, went on a cruise, moved out of our house, lived out of a hotel, moved into a new house, and taught my first season of marching band while battling a plague of family illness. It's like life has been on fast-forward all year long.

Even though life looks different, I have to say that things are better than they were at the end of last year for me personally. I’m afraid that I can’t say the same for the state of the world. Trump’s election is distressing to say the least. I hope that he either surprises us, or is quickly impeached. More distressing, however, is the way that he has empowered the worst aspects of American society. I am up in arms as to how I'm going to proceed to teach my children to do the right thing, because I feel like that is in opposition to what they will be exposed to on a daily basis by the powers that be.

Of course, the easy answer is to teach love and understanding in the home. In practice, though, the pressure that we all have felt as my family forges a new chapter for themselves has sometimes made that difficult. It has been a tough year. It is my most fervent hope, however, that 2017 will represent a year of personal healing for everyone as they brace themselves for the coming storm.

Now you should press "play" and read on....

Last month, I announced a few changes in the methodology that I adopted to create this year’s “best-of” list. The basic guidelines, however, remain the same, and can be accessed here.

 15. Riverside - Love, Fear, and the Time Machine: This album came up with so many best-of 2015 prog-rock lists at the end of last year that I added it to at the outset of 2016. Throughout the year, its engaging melodic aspects and compelling performances kept it in rotation, while the unsettling death of guitarist Piotr GrudziƄski might be one of the less visible losses to the music world we suffered this year.

14. Field Music - Commontime: Once again, Field Music have successfully combined their impressive musicianship and outstanding performance skills with singable melodies. For the trained musician, there is much to enjoy on Commontime, but even my five-year-old daughter appreciates its more accessible aspects.

13. Frost* - Falling Satellites: The latest release from Frost* inhabits that fertile ground between prog and pop that, when done well, hits me where I live. Despite teetering on the edge of production-related sterility at times, the band’s energy and writing strengths kept Falling Satellites in rotation for months.

12. Weezer - Weezer [white]: Even if you're only a fan of the blue album, I would argue that there have always been great pockets of brilliance throughout Weezer’s entire catalog, even during their lowest points. This album, however, pulled me out of my moratorium on Weezer albums, and it fortunately represents an upward swing in their work.

11. The Lennon/Claypool Delirium - The Monolith of Phobos. This one took a while to grow on me, but thanks to Sean Lennon’s songwriting and arranging input, this psychedelic project to stands apart from Claypool’s work with Primus. It would be interesting to see this partnership develop into something even more ambitious.

10. Zweiton - Form. This album is wide-ranging, mathematically complex, continually engaging, and sometimes downright funky. After months of listening, I am still unraveling its compositional and technical nuances.

* there aren't any high quality tracks on YouTube from Form, so check out this one above from Zweiton's bandcamp page.

9. S U R V I V E - RR7349: Since discovering them a couple of years ago, S U R V I V E has evolved from a “band I like” into a genuine musical influence. The compositional strength of RR7349 and it’s vision of a digital future through an analog past continues to inspire me in ways that I hope to make real in 2017.

8. Kayo Dot - Plastic House at Base of Sky: This dense album took a while to unravel, but it really came to have a deep meaning for me after I wrote its freestanding post earlier this year. Plastic House at Base of Sky has a nostalgic aesthetic that I somewhat arbitrarily connected to the day we moved out of our little house on the hill, and now it seems bound to the complicated emotions I experienced that day.

7. David Bowie - Blackstar. It was around this time last year that it seemed like Bowie's choices of players on his new album indicated he was up to something. Little did I realize he was creating his own eulogy.

6. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - EARS: When I learned about Smith and her experimentation with the Buchla Music Easel, I put EARS in rotation and it stopped me in my tracks. Its unique combination of texture, composition, and improvisation kept it in constant, uninterrupted rotation for almost two weeks straight, and it continued to hold up under repeated listenings throughout the rest of the year.

5. Marillion - F.E.A.R.: I was somewhat hard on this album when it came out, but as I have gotten my ears around it I have come to appreciate it immensely. Hogarth’s Marillion has made several great albums, but by harnessing the countercultural angst that drove the group’s earliest incarnation, F.E.A.R. might be their defining statement.

4. Everything Everything - Get to Heaven: Like My Brightest Diamond last year, Get to Heaven ended up being a favorite that, if overall requested plays by family members were the primary factor, probably should be number one. It carries the weight of bands like Elbow with a nonchalance that recalls the Gorillaz.

3. Hans Zimmer - Interstellar OST: When I finally found my bluetooth speaker months after accidentally packing it, I had a hard time listening to anything besides the Interstellar OST when I was up for EJ’s late night feeding. Between this setting and the complex feelings the soundtrack evokes from the movie, I can’t think of another single album that represents those intimate experiences.

2. Anderson/Stolt - Invention of Knowledge: It's obvious to point at Jon Anderson's vocal prowess in this album’s success, but it has also been his tendency in recent years to wander from idea to idea without finishing any one thing. Invention of Knowledge stands up to Anderson’s best work, however, thanks to Stolt’s ability to arrange his ideas within larger compositions while he himself remains relatively transparent.

2016 Album of the Year

1. Bobgoblin - Love Lost for Blood Lust: It's satisfying to see that a countercultural 90s band with an Orwellian concept that seems straight out of 1984 could rise from the ashes and be so relevant today.  If the world were fair, Bobgoblin's distinctive brand of power pop would have already made them a household name, but this year's incredible Love Lost for Blood Lust has the potential to at least broaden their audience.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

In the Wake of Greatness: Emerson, Lake, and Powell

Undoubtedly, music aficionados have suffered some incredible losses this year. From David Bowie’s artfully framed struggle with cancer to the startling passing of Prince, it seems like a whole generation of musicians are beginning to reveal their mortality. Every single one of these musicians deserve mention, but earlier this year, I thought that it would be a shame if the particularly tragic passing of Keith Emerson was eclipsed by more visible artists. I began a commemorative post that I procrastinated finishing and, like an embarrassingly large percentage of my writing, I abandoned it past its relevance.

Then I recently woke to find that his former bandmate and prog-rock icon Greg Lake had also passed. It seemed more pertinent than ever to revise and complete the post, particularly since the underrated entry in ELP’s legacy that I have the most connection with sadly has no surviving members.

Don’t panic, Carl Palmer is still going strong, at least at the time of this writing (fingers crossed).

My introduction to ELP did not come through their classic work, although I came to appreciate it.  I was a member of the MTV generation, so I came to know 70s progressive rock giants like Yes and Genesis through the lens of their 80s reinventions.  Emerson also sought to bring ELP back into the spotlight during this time, but to make a long story short, Asia's success with Heat of the Moment kept drummer Carl Palmer engaged. Cozy Powell (who passed away in 1998 due to a car accident) found his way into the throne, creating an alternative lineup that created one album, simply titled Emerson, Lake, and Powell.

ELPo was cautiously welcomed into this cadre of reinvented prog-rockers, and I still have memories of the brief time Keith Emerson took his turn telling me that he “wanted his MTV,” usually followed by the album’s powerful single Touch and Go. Although Touch and Go did not garner the same attention as, say, Yes' Owner of a Lonely Heart, I purchased the album back then on tape, and it slid effortlessly into rotation on the heels of Rush's Power Windows.

Throughout the next decade and a half, I collected a good portion of ELP’s back catalog and mostly enjoyed it. There is a lot of devastatingly beautiful music to be found there. There are also a few eyeball-rolling moments, particularly in their efforts to arrange orchestral repertoire. Emerson, Lake, and Powell, however, closed with a version of Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War that I would argue is the most successful transcription that ELP ever did (no matter which P you are referring to). It harnesses its energy and bombast of the original in a convincing rock setting without selling out the original piece.

No one who listens carefully can argue Emerson’s amazing prowess as a pianist and keyboard innovator. In recent years, however, his technique had begun to deteriorate due to an ongoing battle with carpal tunnel and nerve damage. Rumors also suggest that he suffered from depression, and was tragically unable to fully appreciate the inspiration that he brought to so many. He found it difficult to carry on, especially in the face on online criticism, making his suicide possibly the most heartbreaking loss this year.

Perhaps less heartbreaking, but no less tragic, was the recent news that Greg Lake had also passed after privately fighting cancer. In a very general sense, Lake’s role in ELP was to provide a folky, bardic counterbalance to Emerson’s bombast. The ballad Lay Down Your Guns is a tip of the hat to Lake's traditional role in the group, and although the song is not without merit, it probably isn't strong enough to represent the huge role that his distinctive musicianship has played in the history of progressive rock music.

While time may have revealed some low energy points on the album, I would argue that the stronger material on Emerson, Lake, and Powell represents some of the best prog-rock that the 80s had to offer.  It is unfortunate that, due to the technological limitations of the day, their brief existence remains relatively undocumented, short of a few low fidelity clips captured by a couple of fans brave and crafty enough to somehow sneak a bulky camcorder into the arena.

I wish I could have seen that.  I came close - I had a ticket for ELPo's show at the Erwin Center in 1986.  They unfortunately had to cancel due to a double-booking with ZZ Top, who was selling out arenas on their Afterburner tour.  The refunded money for the ticket did not come close to replacing the experience, which, in retrospect, would have been the only opportunity I would have had to see either Emerson or Lake.  They reformed, recorded, and performed with Carl Palmer on a limited basis in the decades to follow, but to my knowledge they never came back to Texas.

And, to be honest, I probably would not have traveled to see them.  I have a huge amount of respect for ELP and the innovative work that they did, but in the long run I ended up being a bigger fan of Wakeman than Emerson.  Still, when Emerson, Lake, and Powell was released it had an impact, and the music that came to the surface in its wake, like the rest of ELP's catalog, King Crimson's early work with Lake, and into Gustav Holst's orchestral masterpiece The Planets, was hugely influential in building the kind of musician I became.  I owe them quite a bit, and am sorry to see them go.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Dr. Spin' s Best of 2016 Part 1

I did things a little different in 2016 to prepare for this “best-of” list. I came back to quarterly roundups throughout the year, and they proved to be a valuable document of 2016 as well as a broader venue for writing. I still, however, wanted a quick and easy way to keep track of my listening habits throughout the year.  In January, I set up a document on my phone that allowed me to track the albums I was listening to as well as the number of times that I listened to each one. It was not my intention to use this file as the final say in my end-of-year list, of course, but only as a reference.  It provided some interesting data. For example, I retrospectively discovered that I began to “connect” with a given album at around six or seven listenings. No album with less than that many spins seemed familiar enough to be representative.  There were many that did not hold my attention for that long.

(Push play and read on)

In the end, however, this method actually made things harder, because great albums that might have slipped through the cracks in all of the immensely stressful changes my family and I have gone through this year were sometimes given new life in different settings.  It is for this reason, among others, that I have expanded my traditional year-end “top twenty” albums list to thirty. Not only was there a lot of really good music that went into my ears, so much of it was connected to the broad variety of experiences that marked 2016 that I simply could not get the list down to twenty in any satisfying way. I am, however, still presenting it in two parts, each with fifteen titles and, as always, I have not limited it to titles with a 2016 release date.

30. MuteMath – Vitals: Mutemath’s debut will forever stand in my memory for a variety of reasons, and the band has had to live up to that unfair standard in my mind since I stumbled across it. The glitterball pop polish of Vitals differentiates it enough from that release, however, to be accepted on its own merits, which are many.

29. Thee Oh Sees – Weird Exits: With a psychedelic approach that recalls early Pink Floyd and an aggression that rivals 90s punk revivalists, Thee Oh Sees capture the “punks taking acid” mission statement of the Flaming Lips early in their career. The difference, however, is an emphasis on atmosphere and blistering riffs over clever songwriting.

28. John Williams - Return of the Jedi OST: Tough call on this one, as it represents all of the outstanding contenders from the Star Wars franchise I have focused on throughout the year, which also included Attack of the Clones and The Force Awakens. Return of the Jedi,which ended up being P’s favorite movie this year, is the best of the bunch, although The Force Awakens wins out in terms of relevance and total plays.

27. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution: Spalding’s foray into jazz-rock fusion is impressive and memorable. She is like Joni Mitchell and Jaco Pastorius all rolled up into one on this release.

26. The Africa Express – In C Mali: My interest in this recording was an extension of my experience with Music for 18 Musicians last year. It may not be quite as classic as that recording, but it certainly has its own merits and bears well under repeated listening.

25. Bon Iver – 22, One Million: There was quite a bit of critical attention on this album’s innovations upon its release. Overall, the album is engaging, but a lot of what critics are hailing as innovative reminds me of the work that James Blake was doing on his debut a couple of years ago.

24. Bombino – Azel: An infectious release from Nigerien guitarist Bombino. Although there is a sense of harmonic sameness that permeates the album, it’s impossible to resist Bombino’s enthusiastic guitar playing.

23. Syd Arthur Apricity: Syd Arthur’s newest release features a bit more streamlined approach than their previous efforts, recalling at times a more rhythmically complex Phoenix. While I am still deciding if this is a step forward for the group, the result is still way above what most bands are coming up with.

22. Mbongwana Star – From Kinsaha: I am a longtime fan of 70s African funk music, but I have connected with virtually nothing in terms of contemporary African pop. Mbongwana Star is a pretty interesting example of what is going on these days, at least in the Congo.

21. Run the Jewels – RTJ2: Rap and hip-hop doesn’t play a huge role in my current listening, but every now and then an album pokes its head up and grabs my attention. Sporadic listening throughout the year has revealed the impressive strengths of Run the Jewels 2.

20. Health – Death Magic: A standout release that lays the new romantic vocals of 80s synth pop bands like Erasure with the thick industrial aggression of the early 90s. Rumor has it that Health’s earlier releases veer towards noisier realms, and you can bet some of that will go through rotation in 2017.

19. Karate – Some Boots: Karate was a gem of a find that immediately grabbed my attention with their fantastic, relaxed musicianship.  I particularly appreciate the stripped-down format that gives them the feel of a jazz trio.

18. Zombi – Shape Shift: A fantastic drum-synth-bass trio with roots in b-horror movie soundtracks that took a while to grow on me. While I would like to hear a bit more melodic content, the band’s energy and structure definitely compensates.

17. The Daredevil Christopher Wright – The Nature of Things: Throughout the last few months, I have had an increasingly difficult time trying to succinctly describe this album. Combining folk, jazz, vaudeville, psychedelia, and a broad variety of other styles may objectively sound uneven, but The Daredevil Christopher Wright holds it all together with memorable, quirky songwriting and killer vocal harmonies.

16. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead: This album continued to slip though my fingers for weeks after I put it in rotation. Then, quietly, one afternoon it spoke to me, and I have not heard it the same way since.