What a year, eh? While 2016 was easily the most devastating year I’ve seen in my 40 on this planet. To kick things off David Bowie died before the damn News Years clock had hardly even stopped ringing. Follow that with Prince, Richard Lyons, Sharon Jones, Phife, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Merle Haggard and just before the closing bell, George Michael. That’s not even all of them, but it’s more than enough to illustrate that the Universe had A LOT to make up for. Ying and Yang, right? You cut down a tree, you plant one in return. Well, I don’t know if the scales balanced, but I certainly found a ton of great new music this year. A heaping helping of it it is published by the wonderful Felte Records, so you may want to bookmark their website and keep an eye on them. Also, my two main gatekeepers/curators at this point are Heaven is an Incubator and Part Time Punks, two more great tools for finding amazing new sounds to make your ears happy.
So, what music made 2016 amazing, despite all the stress and strife? Read on dear friends, read on.
Bryce Miller – City Depths: Speaking of Heaven is an Incubator, back in October Tommy posted the track “Wander” from Bryce Miller’s City Depths record and I fell in love with it. I also LOVED the way the album cover art fit the tone of the music so perfectly. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. It took me a while but eventually I bounced over to Spun Out of Control Records and downloaded the City Depths digital album. I would have bought vinyl but it was digital or cassette, which is cool, but not quite the same in my book. Coincidentally, around the same time I bought the album I altered the lighting in my pad and I’ve been living in a dark, ambient womb ever since, with Bryce Miller’s moody, cinematic masterpiece providing the soundtrack. It’s been a good way to end a year that has been great to me personally and brutal to many of the artists who I love and respect.
Jesu/Sun Kil Moon – Despite having long been a fan of as much Justin K. Broadrick as I can routinely get my hands on, Mark Kozelek’s many projects have largely escaped my ears for years. Then, somehow earlier this year two Sun Kil Moon songs ended up on my iPod – no idea how – and I feel in love with them. While subsequently looking to dig deeper I stumbled across this collaborative release between the two and pretty much knew upon first listen that it would end up on this list. Kozelek’s near-rant, stream-of-consciousness, everyday-life vocals are the kind of thing that in theory could go horribly awry but instead end up being some of the best, most affecting vocals I’ve heard in some time. There’s hardly a song on this record that doesn’t make me both smile and tear up and that right there is a feat folks. Add JKB’s fog-drenched dirges behind those vocals and you get one for the ages.
Ritual Howls – Into the Water: It was definitely the band name that drew me in. The band name and the album cover for 2014’s Turkish Leather, which I spotted while looking around Felte records’s bandcamp in the wake of falling in love with Odonis Odonis (later in the list). I listened to two of the tracks from the Ritual Howls’s then-upcoming Into the Water and immediately pre-ordered the vinyl from their bandcamp. I happened to be in Chicago when the album shipped and the digital tracks dropped into my email, so I was able to get to know my new obsession while driving around a rainy midwest through all hours of the night and it was perfect! Flash forward two months and I saw the band live. Since then they’ve has been a staple of 2016 and a band I’ve listened to for countless hours. There’s a sprinkling of old school Wax Trax – a sound and institution I grew up with and miss remarkably – but also Sisters of Mercy, The Cure and a general moodiness that both plays with that goth/dark wave sound and elevates it into something fresh and new.
Dillinger Escape Plan – Dissociation: Every time Dillinger Escape Plan puts out a record I stand in awe of it for months before I even begin to decode the music into anything I can make sense of. I’ve given this phenomenon a lot of thought in the three months or so since their final album, Dissociation came out and I had a bit of a revelation. Well, maybe not a revelation, but a metaphor by which I’ve come to understand and respect Dillinger even more. It harkens back to H.P. Lovecraft. If you were to observe one of Lovecraft’s monsters, your mind would not be able to comprehend it entirely, so you would only see a certain cross section of the whole, and this would intrigue and haunt you forever, a glimpse into something primordial, archetypal, and terrifying, but completely alien and outside your experience. That sums up The Dillinger Escape Plan – a band whose music I have followed and seen live six times since 1999 – absolutely perfectly in my estimate. They operate on a level that is very hard to grasp, and it stretches my brain to absorb each new record they release. Until now, when they will release no more. As a final album, Dissociation sums the band up sonically, and their final live show in LA summed up the physical manifestation of that sound just as well.
RIP DEP. 2016 has taken so much. Dillinger, like Bowie, planned for it.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree: It is an unfortunate fact of life that tragedy catalyzes amazing art. Well, perhaps not unfortunate, not for the artist anyway, as I cannot think of a better way to purge pain, loss, terror, whatever, than by creating. It’s not just therapeutic, it’s alchemical; the transmutation of one energy into a tangible result that can then be experienced by others.
That’s Skeleton Tree in a nutshell. And in a career of powerful, transcendent and affecting albums Nick Cave, after the darkest of tragedy, has turned in one of his most powerful.
Chasms – On The Legs of Love Purified: Back in October a friend and I hit LA’s Echo to catch that Ritual Howls’s show we ended up discovering another great band, also on Felte. Actually, “discovering” is downplaying it – I’m being 100% honest when I say that I had a profound emotional experience seeing Chasms play, and the experience holds pretty true listening to the album as well. A two-piece from San Francisco with serious Cure undertones, On the Legs of Love Purified is a sweeping epic of absolutely beautiful proportions. Here’s Chasms bandcamp; If you dig what you hear keep your eyes peeled for tour dates coming your way. One hundred percent worth whatever effort you might have to expend to get to the show.
Pale Dian – Narrow Birth: This one I have KXLU to thank for. Michael Stock and his brilliant show, Los Angeles underground staple Part Time Punks has turned me on to so much since I discovered them earlier in the year, a lot of it brilliant and contemporary bands continuing the “Post Punk” sound of the early 80s. A sound and scene I hold pretty much above most others. I don’t want to limit anyone with a comparative description, but influences worn on the sleeve are not necessarily a bad thing, and that’s definitely the case with Pale Dian. I heard “Evan Evan” on the way home from work one day and an hour or so laster when I walked into my pad I hit the group’s bandcamp and bought the record. It’s been in the regular rotation ever since and it’s one of the albums that defined my year as a very good year.
3) The Body – No One Deserves Happiness: I had very strange relationship with this record. I doubt I’m the only person who can say that, but it’s worth mentioning. Stuck in traffic on a Friday sometime earlier in the year, I tuned to KXLU and heard a massive set that, at some point, I realized was all the same artist. Song after song my excitement grew and I hoped hoped hoped before I came around the final curve on the 110 Harbor Freeway and lost reception that the DJ would jump in and tell me what this absolutely mind-blowing masterpiece was. He did not. As such I was literally left to wonder for months, until last week I read Tommy’s 2016 article and saw this album cover. I don’t know how I knew this was the album, but I knew it. I mean, I KNEW it. And as soon as I went here my hunch was confirmed and I was made a very, very happy man. Thanks again Tommy. And thanks to The Body, because this album changes everything. Literally. Possibly the most original record I’ve heard in years.
2) Odonis Odonis – Post Plague: Odonis Odonis came into my life in April and they changed the entire course of my year. Post Plague is a modern masterpiece, a full-out salvo of some of the most dynamic new music I’ve heard in a long time. Sure, there are familiar elements here, but they are arranged and executed in a way that is more invigorating than any music I heard all year, maybe all decade. If my number one of the year below kicked off an introspective journey into the cosmic threads of consciousness, Post Plague made me want to go out and kick some figurative ass, whether that meant party with strangers, write my ass off (novel’s done! Thanks in part to this record) or just drive LA’s rain soaked streets with a friend and soak in life, this record was there through all of it. Thanks guys – can’t wait for the follow-up.
And number one? Could there have been any doubt?
1) David Bowie – Blackstar: David Bowie’s entire life was a work of art, so why not his death too? For most people, dedicated to the craft or not, such a feat would simply take too much work, too much self awareness and an insurmountable force of Will. I guess we’re all super lucky that those attributes describe the late, great David Bowie to a ‘t’. Imagine staring your own impending mortality in the face and holding steady for so prolonged a period of time that you are able to transmute all the expectations, emotions and thoughts it inspires in you into music. That is an amazing achievement in my book, and Blackstar is an equally amazing piece of music, made even more amazing by the fact that either through Bowie’s design or an uncanny sense of cosmic timing, Blackstar was released the day Bowie turned 69 and two days later he died. Where the fuck did Monday go indeed.
Also, special shout out to the jazz musicians who Bowie utilized on Blackstar: saxophonist Donny McCaslin, keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana. Collectively The Donny McCaslin group, they have a new album out now.
That’s it. Here’s to the music that 2017 will bring – and hopefully far less death.
Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.