An Act of Love is a gentle midnight surprise, music as pulsing revelation birthed in the moment between waking and tumbling into dreams. It comes on ominously before dissolving into inescapable rhythm, leaving a breadcrumb trail through memory toward some warm place half-recalled.
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:
I haven’t posted a weekly update in a while, so it’s about time. A lot happened, but I’ll stick to the highlights.
I hung out in wine country, biked about 500 miles, and finally saw my Japanese metal superheroes Boris in concert. Then I found myself on an extended deep dive into all the 60s jazz that I skipped over in the past. This total immersion is resulting in another evolution of taste.
Wim Mertens’ incredible album has been lodged in my brain for a few weeks now, settling into those neuronal corners usually reserved for longtime favorites. It would feel like cheating if Maximizing The Audience weren’t such a perfectly realized slice of modern classical music.
When I hit play here, I’m pulled back to my oldest memories of hearing Philip Glass as a child, realizing that this genre felt like a core component of my musical identity. Listening to this feels like brave new territory overlaid on some nostalgic memory of home.
It’s hard to describe to a newcomer exactly what Arther Russell does that’s so ineffably unique. He’s a cellist, composer, and otherworldly disco producer who crafted some of the strangest and most deeply affecting music the world has ever known. His singing is deeply felt, vulnerable, and nothing like any classic vocalist.
Arthur Russell was unforgivably ignored in his lifetime, but I am so thankful that the massive body of work he kept to himself has been thoughtfully collected and released in the years since. He may have died before I was 10 years old, but he’s now one of my favorite musicians ever.
The man’s brief career began in the 70s collegiate avant-garde scene, collaborating with Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Rhys Chatham, and most notably, Allen Ginsberg, accompanying the beat poet’s live work on cello. He moved into the gritty New York disco scene and crafted some of the most alien dance singles of the era before finally crafting his own masterpiece. World Of Echo, a solo journey of vocals, cello, soft percussion and electronic effects, is the only full album released during his lifetime, as Russell died of AIDS in 1992, nearly broke.
I’ve been fond of this brilliant clip for well over a decade, yet I never quite put my finger on what 20th century sci-fi short story it reminds me of.
I’m thinking Bradbury, I’m thinking Clarke? Dick? I have no idea. I merely recall a short story in middle school English class that lodged its way deep into my mind. The story of kids in a future (on a different planet?) where they could not go outside because of some extreme weather phenomena, and finally had a momentary opportunity to do so. It could have been poisonous air, like this video. It could have been solar radiation. I could be entirely wrong.
Does this ring a bell to anyone? Does the video conjure memories, or the name of a story?
I know I could probably stumble through google trial and error and figure it out, but I prefer learning things directly from people. I like finding out what happened because someone told me. I like having a connection reveal the information I seek, at least some of the time.
It can get lonely, having all you need to know at your fingertips all the time.
I read today that Vertigo Music would have the first vinyl issue of Ágætis Byrjun since its original pressing 15 years ago, and was reminded that I hadn’t paid this group much attention in recent years. Their impact may have dulled a bit with the passage of time and a billion miles traveled in my music journey, but there’s still nothing quite like Sigur Rós.
If you can help with my search, or if you’re just reading this, thank you. I write for you.