Music does something to me, and I’ve never been able to explain exactly why. It just happens. Sometimes I walk into a supermarket, hear a song on the sound system, and my attention wanders into space. I stop dead and forget the shopping list. My wife becomes understandably exasperated.
I can’t not listen.
My earliest childhood memories have melodic accompaniment. When very young, I’d go to sleep to the cracklings of an ancient AM radio, and perhaps that’s why absolutely nothing about being five years old remains intact except for hearing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
The grooves on a LP collection of children’s music subsequently were worn and frayed. I recall two cuts in particular: An American folk song called “One More Day,” and Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo.”
The anecdotes are both endless and tedious, but the point is this: Music plays inside my noggin at all times, and has done so for as long as I can remember. It is central to my being. And yet, for all the ways that music is the soundtrack of my life, I possess no musical skills. None.
Instruments are a mystery to me, and my voice, once capable of decently carrying a tune for the legendary Mick Neely, has digressed through decades of misuse and abuse to the point of shower stall braying alone, safely away from the ears of humans, if not terrified cats. I listen, drum fingers, hum, whistle and participate as best I can.
My conclusion? If there is a music gene, I have a variant of it. Music has spoken to me from the beginning. Had my formative years been spent with musicians as role models as opposed to athletes, perhaps it all would have turned out differently. As it stands, I’ve no complaints.
The innate pleasure to be derived from listening to music is more of an essential heartbeat than an optional amusement, and I can’t imagine life otherwise. If the music in my head ever stops playing, it will be the unmistakable sign of imminent death — and as all atheists know, death is a symphony without encores.
A musician like J. S. Bach certainly thought differently, regarding his considerable musical skills as gifts from God, intended to be used to glorify and exalt Him. The simplistic vision of angels cleverly arranged on cloud banks, deploying a phalanx of harps to while away eternity, surely derives from this idea of music and holiness intertwined.
That doesn’t resonate with me. Music may well “have” its own gene, but its manifestation in a tangible, real world is a human construct. Liturgical music would strike that tuneful genetic chord no matter what, but the mysteries and meanings we read into it result from eons of conditioning, not a deity’s intervention.
Of course, if given the chance to choreograph my final departure, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” would be a fine choice for greeting eternity. The music would play, it would end, and on the very next beat, so would I. There would be the final silence, and life would continue without me.
Though “Won’t Get Fooled Again” would work, too.
Having established that music is vital, I generally prefer listening in the present tense, not the past. This does not stem from a desire to be hip and trendy. Rather, it’s an expression of evolution as an individual, and feeding fresh data into the system to see what comes out the other side. What interests me is the way I hear music, and how this process changes along with my own growth over time.
My simple goal is to keep abreast of what’s new in music insofar as it pertains to whatever styles of music make me happiest. As an example, while rock and roll may be “dead” as a genre, the world still manages to disgorge a few youthful rockers, and some of them are damned entertaining (see Yak, Spring King and Twin Peaks, below).
I customarily allow myself to listen to “oldies,” but only in a controlled and rationed context. The ghosts of my consciousness are profuse and insistent, and they cannot be allowed to frame the present via the past, especially since in musical terms, the reactions engendered are so very personal. The idea is to interpret one’s past through music, not relive it.
When my father was a much older man, the way he heard Glenn Miller’s songs owed directly to his first experiences with them, as a Marine in the Pacific Theater during World War II. My dad played these songs for me, and to this very day, I hear them differently, as a boy in the milieu of the 1970s.
Same tunes, radically different worlds – and yet a common language of enjoyment for both of us.
This brings me to the recently concluded year in music, 2016, and while not reaching the lofty heights of 2014, it was better than average.
There was some jazz …
Artie Shaw & His Gramercy 5 … Six Star Treats – The Complete Commercially Released Recordings
Bunny Berigan … Swingin’ and Jumpin’
Hines, Armstrong and Bechet: A conjoined pop song, and other thoughts about jazz.
Cultural education: Documentary films about Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.
… and some classical and world music.
The controversial and enigmatic Herbert von Karajan, rock star of the classics.
Lincoln Trio … Trios from our Homelands
Lynched … Cold Old Fire (2015)
Zmei3 … Rough Romanian Soul
The usual disclaimers apply: I’m an old, straight, white guy, and I like what I like. There’s no effort at lofty detachment here, just the music that wormed its way into my head – and the nearer the album to my personal Number One, the more stubbornly memorable it was.
No, there isn’t much in the way of country, western, rap or or hip hop. They’re not customarily in my sweet spot, but to each his or her own, and you won’t hear me slagging them. Finally, I do a dismally horrid job of supporting local music by my presence when it’s being played. Each year I resolve to do better, so we’ll see.
To begin the survey of 2016 album releases, here are ten of what might be termed “honorable mention”
Bloc Party … Hymns
Neil Finn and Paul Kelly … Goin’ Your Way (2015)
The Goon Sax… Up to Anything
The Jayhawks … Paging Mr. Proust
Lucius … Good Grief
Paul Simon … Stranger to Stranger
Red Hot Chili Peppers … The Getaway
The Rolling Stones … Blue & Lonesome
Santana … IV
Teenage Fanclub … Here
There are fine moments to be found in each of these releases, but for various reasons, they have fallen outside my eccentric “year’s end” boundaries. The long overdue reunion of Santana’s original lineup and the unexpected blues album by the Rolling Stones both are first rate, except I’m not a true fan of either Latin rock rhythms or blues covers. A little of them goes a long way with me.
Finn’s and Kelly’s collaboration is beautiful, filled with tunes you know (from Finn) and comparably crafted songs you’ve never heard (from Kelly, who is unknown outside Australia). However, it was recorded in 2013 and released in 2015, not 2016. I really want to like Lucius and The Goon Sax, but the songs don’t stick in my cranium… and so it goes.
Sleaford Mods … TCR
Just five songs; it seems too scant to include among albums, so I’ll leave it right here and return in 2017 when a full CD is released. In the meantime, the wonderful bile slightly de-escalates and the minimalist sound is shifting. I’m intrigued, and looking forward to next.
25 – 21
25 The Last Shadow Puppets … Everything You’ve Come to Expect
According to Pitchfork: “It’s the perfect music for the Daniel Craig-era James Bond films: sophisticated, tortured—and with a weakness for temptation.” The song sample here reveals something else, almost akin to crooning.
24 Catfish and the Bottlemen … The Ride
I’m reminded of the tradition of the sophomore jinx. There’s an element of stadium-anthem-consciousness that seems too forced, with lyrics generally concerned with what it’s like to be a rock star. I’d guess the same as in 1976, but with smart phones and social media.
23 James … Girl at the End of the World
Much in the vein of 2014’s release La Petite Mort, to such an extent that henceforth I’ll probably regard them together, as a two-year, two-disc set.
22 Glass Animals … How to Be A Human Being
The album opener and single “Life Itself” is one of my favorite songs of the year. The album title is a nod to the unifying concept, with the songs reflecting people crossing paths during the band’s touring.
21 Elton John … Wonderful Crazy Night
It is reported that Elton John and Bernie Taupin went into the studio determined to make an up-tempo album, and they succeeded. It’s ebullient and fun, if a tad slight.
20 – 15
20 Nick Cave & Bad Seeds … Skeleton Tree
Nick Cave’s son tragically fell from a cliff and was killed, and while much of this brooding, pensive album already was finished, it is inevitably colored by the tragedy. Deeply compelling; at certain juncture hard to listen to.
19 The 1975 … I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
The British music press has proclaimed The 1975 as the next greatest thing, although my own personal jury remains in deliberation. There is no sophomore jinx to this release, and the throwback flash of INXS in “Love Me” is enticing. Still, I’m not whistling any of these songs save one, and that’s a dead giveaway (in my world).
18 Wild Beasts … Boy King
I’m a longtime fan of this intense group with the falsetto-laden front man. Previously they’ve been pleasingly androgynous; lots of sex, and equal doses of ambiguity. This release is heavy on the masculinity, and to me, it comes off as misogyny. The mood suits, so long as I ignore the words.
17 Kaiser Chiefs … Stay Together
Midway through the album, there is an introductory loop of a band member’s confession: “This is pop music.” And so it is, and I like it. The sarcastic lyrical edge of the band’s hits a decade ago has been supplanted by more hooks, and that’s acceptable to me, too.
16 Radiohead … A Moon Shaped Pool
It never matters where a Radiohead album lands in terms of my rankings. Like a good book or an accomplished film, you know that subsequent visits over a period of years will keep disgorging things you missed the first couple dozen times.
15 – 10
15 Spring King … Tell Me If You Like To
They seek earnestly to rock, with a ragged garage edge and a few key vocal snarls, and this is important given its relative rarity these days. Songs need some tightening, but Spring King’s a keeper.
14 White Lies … Friends
Hook, as in a bass-heavy sound reminiscent of New Order’s low-end Peter; hooks, as in plenty of attention-grabbing melodies. Lacking in lyrical content.
13 Lust for Youth … Compassion
Lust for Youth is the code name for Swedish musician Hannes Norrvide’s solo work. Call it electronica or synth pop, although it plays like 1980s British New Wave.
12 The Coral … Distance Inbetween
Once upon a time, this was Noel Gallagher’s favorite group. They disappeared for a while, and have returned with a strong set of songs in a psychedelic style that reminds the listener of the late 1960s or early 1970s.
11 Blossoms … Blossoms
It’s the best-selling debut album of 2016 in the United Kingdom. NME says: “A heroic blend of radio-friendly guitar pop and bristling disco from the Stockport five-piece named after a pub.”
10 – 5
10 Cotton Mather … Death of the Cool
Once upon a time there was a gem of a pop album called Kontiki, by a band named for a famous 17th-century New England minister and pamphleteer. The resident genius is named Robert Harrison, and while Death of the Cool doesn’t reach the same heights as its predecessor, Harrison can fall out of bed and write a distinctive pop song in an array of motifs.
9 Twin Peaks … Down in Heaven
They’re Chicago garage rockers, and AllMusic says: “Twin Peaks hang on to their rough-and-raw disposition while drawing sonic inspiration from favorite albums of 1968, including, per press materials, works by the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Beatles.” Ear worms all.
8 Parquet Courts … Human Performance
The Internet suggests comparisons with Pavement, though like the reviewer at Stereogum, I’ve never been much for Pavement, but quite enjoy the sound of Parquet Courts: “(Their) great subject might be the way living in big late-capitalist cities can turn existential stress into straight-up dread.”
7 Bastille … Wide World
Electronica, synth pop; whatever. Last year, it was Chvrches, and this year Bastille. The tunes are catchy. They nestled in my skull, and I can imagine them as more conventional rock ‘n’ roll, but the imaginative lyrics are what sends this album closer to the front of the queue.
6 David Bowie … Blackstar
What can I possibly add to probably the greatest closing act in pop/rock history, apart from the observation that it’s more jazz than either pop or rock, and that’s why it nabbed me on the first listen? The passing of Bowie’s generation is the subject of much consternation, but to me, whether it’s Lemmy touring almost until the day he died, the Stones reaching all the way back to the blues, or Bowie’s creativity at the brink of eternity, the point is how the sentiment “hope I die before I get old” plays out in real life when it failed to occur way back when.
5 – 1
5 Cheap Trick … Bang, Zoom, Crazy … Hello
2016 brought the pride of Rockford, Illinois an album of new material for the first time in seven years, as played to the beat of a different drum (literally — Bun E. is long gone), and then induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The rock and roll quotient is high, and the quasi-Beatles pop predilection more subdued. Bless them.
4 Yak … Alas Salvation
They became infamous as the scene-stealing opening act for Arctic Monkeys, and debut with ample and glorious noise. It’s a joyful cacophony, but not without melodies and hooks, and on more than one occasion, I’ve been startled by the thought that I’ve heard nothing like it since Nirvana.
The Guardian’s passage is wonderful: “Everything’s in the red, the guitars sound as if they wondered what it would sound like if you layered 60s garage rock, Stooges-style noise, 70s punk and a couple of pneumatic drills on top of each other: it’s like being run over by a steamroller for 41 minutes, but in a good way. You’re unlikely to be writing critical analyses of the lyrics, but you don’t need to with a record that sounds as exciting as this.”
3 Bob Mould … Patch the Sky
Like me, the musician Bob Mould was born in 1960. I have about two months of longevity on him. Hüsker Dü, the band that made Mould famous, was formed in 1979, roughly a year after my final high school English class. My teacher (and subsequently, my friend) was Bob Youngblood, who died on July 23. His funeral took place less than twelve hours after we saw Mould perform at Headliners, and naturally his set was heavy on songs from the 2016 release.
The volume of Mould’s show may have fractured my skull, but it was a wonderful injury. The Youngblood visitation was sad, and yet redemptive in its own way.
Rolling Stone adds: “Mould (conjures) the ecstatic rage of his earlier bands for a grim new era, apparently still convinced that the best way to meet crushing hopelessness is by barreling head first through it with a throat-shredding howl and all amps cranked.”
2 Suede … Night Thoughts
Suede’s last album, Bloodsports, was #3 on my 2013 album countdown. Night Thoughts is even better, and while I’m not sure what you have scheduled tonight, I’ll be taking time to watch (again) Suede’s set from Glastonbury, 2015, and following it with Night Thoughts. Guitarist Richard Oakes famously replaced founding band member Bernard Butler in 1994 at the age of 17, and listening to his distinctive rhythmic work and beautifully composed leads just never gets old.
It’s how you forget about New Albany — well, that and lots of beer.
In a review at Spin: “New-ish father Brett Anderson has said that Night Thoughts is about being a parent and revisiting your own childhood, and sings of the stuff that literally keeps a fortysomething up at night: facing your inadequacy and losing people you love — or, more specifically, losing your children.”
1 The Jezabels … Synthia
A very long time ago, Pete Townshend wrote these wise words: “I know what I mean, but I can’t explain.” Perhaps we feel this way more often when we’re young, and arguably less so with a few decades under our belts, and yet there is ample room for exceptions. The Jezabels are one. I can’t explain why listening to the group’s 2014 release The Brink invariably ends with tears in my eyes. it wasn’t intended to be a concept album, but it functions like an extended story to me. Quite likely I’m the only 56-year-old male fan this group has (apart from the band members’s fathers), and if so, that’s a compliment.
Synthia already works the same way, and I know what’s going to happen when I listen again in a year or two, although the next listen probably will come long before then.
Our favorite bands should be like our choice of doctor: Younger than us.
Happy listening in 2017.