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:
Today I decided to make the best Saturday possible. I hit the farmer’s market for fresh Michigan asparagus and got a massive taco from the truck, eating in the sun. I got home and listened to my new ATLiens and Endtroducing vinyls before leaving on an extended bike ride along the lake shore. A lot happened; it’s detailed below. Spoiler: I had a much better time than last week, when I crashed my bike.
I came upon this lonely house, the first in a brand new development on the shoreline. With workers on the roof and the surrounding landscape, I was struck by the most indelible image from one of my favorite films of all time, Days of Heaven. Then I kept riding.
I’m a bad. ass. motherfuckin dee jay / this is why I walk and talk this way
There comes a point in certain young lives when music evolves from a form of social currency to something to be enjoyed on a deeper personal level. It’s a headlong dive into a world most people use as wallpaper, geeking out over the sounds, hardware, history, and meaning of it all.
I was always rather independent in my music choices, but growing up in the midwest before broadband internet meant that my horizons were limited. The advent of file sharing programs like Morpheus, Kazaa, and Soulseek was a supernova moment for teenagers like me, desperately seeking new sounds. On the rare midnight-show occasion when something on the radio piqued my interest, I’d get on the computer to look them up, downloading a song or two in 30 minutes.
Before the internet, certain genres never had a chance to touch my ears. Once I’d taken the plunge, I started devouring every fresh thing I could. One was my favorite radio discovery ever, an album I’ve called my “desert island” record. It harkened back to something I’d heard in my youngest days, The Beastie Boys sampling landmark Paul’s Boutique. It boldly recycled sounds and tropes from across the musical spectrum into something vibrant and dangerous. It was entirely new to me.
Dreams of Water Themes is the stupendous result of a collaboration between Daedelus and Frosty, who christened themselves Adventure Time and cooked up a nautical stew of jazzy undercurrents, waves of turntablism, sampledelia swells, and clipped vocal crests, cut through with a crackling, frothy breeze.
Check the end of this post for the full album stream.
It’s a unique project in the canon of modern beats, with the title and artwork indicating the type of hefty thematic glue unifying this far-flung enterprise – in other words, it’s one of the more cohesive electronic/hip-hop releases floating around. Fans of Daedelus’ opus Denies the Day’s Demise are in for a real treat; this LP hews closer to that record’s heights than any project he’s been involved in before or since. Loosely roiling keys, dizzy horns, vaguely mideastern strings and incisive, impeccably placed spoken samples drive the narrative thrust, while the constantly evolving yet self-referencing palate keeps two feet planted firmly on the deck through the half-hour-plus of churning beat seas.
There’s a certain whiff of Since I Left You rising off the whole affair, though it’s more respectful nod than straight homage or borrowed nostalgia; the pair acknowledge their forebears in the turntables-set-sail department without constantly reminding us of that towering landmark. Adventure Time created an ambitious – but consciously playful – musical journey which begs to take listeners out on a freewheeling voyage through the high seas of rhythm exploration.
[snag a digital copy at 7digital or get the cd at amazon with its attendant cool packaging]
Since this is the first post on my blog, I feel the need to share one of the truly essential albums in my life. Since I Left You, by The Avalanches.