In 1980, David Bowie followed up the critically beloved but sales deprived Berlin trilogy of experimental rock albums with a set of tunes meant to jump-start his career again. I’m not sure what the label executives were hoping for, but the result feels like a hulking, mutated cousin of what came before it.
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) is one of the wildest, weirdest albums of Bowie’s career, ripping violently between hysterical pop and defiantly experimental impulses.
I’ll tell you a very short story about how quickly Oren Ambarchi’s latest album became one of my favorites of 2016. My first listen to Hubris resulted in the below note, found scribbled on a note pad at my desk the next morning:
“Giant stupid grin inducing fusion of New Music minimalism and krautrock groove.”
That jumbled run-on was all that I could muster after having my mind blown by surprise, early one December evening. What follows is my attempt at organizing that electric feeling into something more digestible.
Looking back at what a shit year 2016 has been, it’s no wonder I published more music writing than ever before. As the months wore on I found myself swiping away more and more real news in my feed and just getting lost in Bandcamp and other music sources. I wasn’t really trying to bury my head; I was looking for a better way of thinking.
The world is what it is, but I can frame it and focus on it however I choose. Immersing in the toxicity of bad news and worse reactions changed my perception one way, so I aimed to change it another way. Art has been a life sustaining tonic all my life, a refuge sought in times of stress, loneliness, and most of all, deep frustration. If I’ve hit a brick wall, I know that obsessing about the problem won’t help. I need to detach, breathe, and follow something made to surprise. A good story or song is something to be lost in, sure, but it grants perspective. It can bend the light just so, showing me a new way to see.
Perspective also comes from travel. The simple but profound act of experiencing other parts of the world can never be overestimated. This is where the image at the top of this list comes in. It’s Greenland, as seen from my plane back home to the United States from Ireland a month ago. I happened to open the window shade during the brief window when we were passing over the very tip of the continent-sized island. It felt like magic.
I’m entering 2017 with hope that good news can happen and that we can press on, even when our heroes are gone. I look around and I wonder who the future heroes are going to be. Those people will be standing against the dark tide and risking everything. They’ve got new ideas to replace the scary old ones that never quite die.
Looking back on the past year of music, I see a lot of new ideas and new perspectives on old ones. The best kind of music always elicits surprise, even if it’s made in a familiar way. There’s a flash of feeling, a rush of blood, and it clicks. Everything on this list mattered to me and I hope some of it can matter to you.
Let’s begin the countdown. These are the 30 best albums of 2016:
Radiohead just released a new single for the first time in years. It’s called Burn The Witch and it honestly gives me some hope for the forthcoming album.
Qluster is the current incarnation of one of the longest-running acts on the planet, continually vibrant and productive from 1971 onward. In this possibly final form, the band once known as Cluster has mellowed some of the rough edges and grown subtly complex, losing none of that original alien magic they’ve conjured for 45 years running.
Swapping a C for a Q seems relatively minor, but the twist it signifies has been significant. Since 2011, the band has been incredibly prolific, dropping more than one album per year. The latest, Echtzeit, is the most vibrant yet.
Remember how I mentioned springtime last week? Just kidding! It’s winter again here in Michigan, and I’m pretty broke, so I ended up staying home and listening to warm tunes most of the time. I discovered some real surprises by going out and simply looking for anything that felt new, an activity that I should do more often.
There’s nothing much more rewarding than setting out to surprise yourself and then doing exactly that.
Yoko Ono is one of my greatest inspirations, a true artist in every fiber of her being. Her words have symbolically marked my mixtapes, and her book, Grapefruit, sits always on my desk at work.
She is 83 today, and still making daring music that puts most artists a quarter of her age to shame. Here’s hoping there’s more to come.
In November of 1980, a few days before John Lennon untimely death on December 8, photographer Allan Tannenbaum had unique and total access to Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, who were emerging from five years of seclusion, ready to release a new album, “Double Fantasy.” Many of the photographs never released before are now in the book “John & Yoko, A new York Love Story”, release by Insight Editions, November 2007.///John Lennon and Yoko Ono during filming of the “Starting Over” video.