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.

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