My Favorite Music To Reclaim 2016

Jan 2nd, 2017 | By | Category: Reviews, That's So Last Year

2016 wasn’t kind to music lovers. So many great musicians slipped off this mortal coil causing many of us to wonder how many more terrible losses we may continue to suffer in the coming years as illness and age takes its toll on the innovators and superstars that have provided so much music that has moved us. The year saw the passing of such exceptional musicians as Prince, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Paul Kantner, Merle Haggard, Bernie Worrell, George Martin, Glenn Frey, Leon Russell and, most significantly for me, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. The music of Bowie and Cohen has played a major part in my life’s personal musical journey. Their deaths have caused me the greatest grief one can have for someone I’ve never met but whose music touched me so deeply. Both of these artists released superb new albums this year shortly before their passing, one at the beginning of the year and the other near the end, serving as bookends of sorts for the losses of 2016. These artists may never release new material again, but what’s great in the face of so many deaths is that their music will continue to provide us with joy, comfort, honesty, excitement, and hope for the remainder of our lives. What follows is a list of albums that not only saw the most repeated plays on my stereo, but also helped me reclaim 2016 as not a year of tremendous loss, rather a year that demonstrates music’s healing power.

1. Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker

“Hineni hineni! I’m ready my lord,” are the words Cohen intones on the opening title track of his final album. Hineni is a Hebrew word that translates to, “Here I Am.” At the age of 82 it seems he was ready for his departure. Earlier this year Cohen wrote a letter to Marrianne Ihlen, the woman referred to in his song “So Long Marianne,” shortly before her death. In the letter, he said, ‘Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” Prepared he may have been, but Cohen still suggested that goodbyes are never as clean and clear as you would like. A preoccupation with death, love and loss permeates all his work. That is the poet in him. His lyrics abound with quotable phrases, and surely his lyrics are what cements his legacy in the world of music. You Want It Darker has its share of great lines. Consider these, “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game,” from “Leaving The Table.” Or from “On The Level,” “ I turned my back on the devil/ Turned my back on the angel too,” or “I wish there was a treaty/Between your love and mine,” on the track “Treaty.”

Throughout this incredible album Cohen croons in that deep worn voice of his that can connect with you as though he were right there in the room with you. Musically You Want It Darker possesses a lush simplicity that blends so well with Cohen’s voice. The music lets his voice and lyrics carry the tune without getting in the way but still augments his words and helps move the tunes along. There seems to be something about a Cohen song that lends itself well for interpretation by other artists, and there are several potential ones here. Whether it’s the slightly country-tinged “Leaving the Table,” the lush and mournful, “Treaty” or the Greek folk-inspired, “Traveling Light,” any of these songs are ripe for future covers.

For years Cohen has been one of those artists that seemed to take forever to make a record. But these past five years have seen him release Old Ideas, Popular Problems and now You Want It Darker. I don’t think he has ever released as many albums in such a span. We are all fortunate that at this late stage in his life he was able to produce such magnificent music. You Want It Darker is a brilliant record and an excellent exit from this exquisite poet and tower of song.

2. Van der Graaf Generator: Do Not Disturb

For a band composed of members who are all nearing their 70s, it is quite remarkable that Van der Graaf Generator continue to produce some of the most uncompromising music ever put to vinyl. Do Not Disturb is their best album since reforming in 2005. In some ways it is classic VdGG. The songs are filled with odd time signatures, gnarly twists and turns, and a frenetic energy  that surprises and shocks. That just three musicians can create such ferocious intensity on guitar, piano, drums and organ is nothing short of extraordinary and a testament to their immense talent. But not everything on the album is imbued with such severity. Packed within the songs are multiple layers deep with passion. There a quiet passages, gorgeous melodies, and of course the unmistakably insightful lyrics of Peter Hammill.

One of the things that has always excited me about this band is its unusual ability to turn a perfectly beautiful and melodic piece of music on its ear by going off in the most unpredictable directions. These seasoned musicians know how to play off each other and align with each other in the most unexpected ways. There seems to exist within the band a DNA of defiance, something that simply will not let them compose music in a straight line. Listening to VdGG is like reading philosophy. It’s not the easiest thing to tackle, but the rewards are thoroughly gratifying.

A sense of history permeates much of Do Not Disturb. On “Alfa Berlina” not only does the band reflect on its unforeseen popularity in Italy early in its career, it also ruminates on a lifetime of pursuing music. As Hammill states at the beginning of the song, “In the fullness of time/When it’s all waxed and waned/And the cycle’s complete maybe it’ll make sense at last/All the strangeness explained/All the stories discrete./ Maybe then it’ll all be clear.” Elsewhere on “Room 1210” Hammill describes a life on the road spent in hotels among all the other lives spent there as well. “He’s one among the ghosts,” he says. “Forever Falling” recalls Hammill’s solo work with the K Group, while “Brought To Book” is one of those beautiful ballads that the group cannot let go without turning it in on itself and disrupting the beauty. On “Almost The Words” Hammill’s lyrics return to a recurring theme of his, the inability of words to precisely say what is meant. “These are almost the words I intended to say,” he begins before concluding, “The secret’s unspoken/The sense is absurd/The safety net’s broken/Lost for words.”

There has been some talk on the net that this could be the final album for the band. Certainly the last track, “Go,” seems to allude to this. “There’s the thing/For all you know/It’s time to go” are the last lines on the track. I, however, hold out hope that this is not the end for the band. They have been on an inspiring roll since reforming in 2005, oddly enough the most successful run they’ve ever had. Time may not be on their side, but artists can still make incredible music no matter their age. Besides, Hammill has no intention of slowing his solo releases, and I suspect when the VdGG muse starts calling again they will be back in full force. But, if this is the end, then it is indeed a great ending for a band that has forever danced to its own beat.

3. David Bowie: Blackstar

Bowie always had a knack for being ahead of the times and I suppose his untimely death on January 10, 2016, was, in some way, an auguring of just how bad the year would become. Blackstar, released only two days before his death, is a deliberate final artistic statement. It is utterly free from commercial restraint and as a result one of the purest albums of sublime art rock that he ever released.

In 2013, after a 10-year hiatus, Bowie surprised everyone by dropping a new album on an unsuspecting public.  The Next Day showed not only his proclivity to jolt but also demonstrated there was still plenty of exciting music left in his artistic tank. It was a fresh distillation of his musical past with hints of what would come. “Heat,” the final track on The Next Day and where Bowie channels Scott Walker, one of his greatest inspirations, is the sort of composition that signaled the approach he would take on Blackstar.

From the haunting 10-minute opening title track to the final proclamations of “I Can’t Give It All Away,” Bowie takes us on a transformative trip weaving through dark corridors and endless nights revealing its denouement that we never really perish, we merely move on. Much has been made of Bowie’s penchant for change, and rightly so. He never was one to rest on his laurels. All his albums, successful or not, embraced his drive to explore, transform, and discover. Blackstar may prove to be the height of those ambitions. It is a profound statement of artistic integrity and intent. It is an album for the ages.

4. Barry Adamson: Know Where To Run

For several decades now the former Magazine and Bad Seed bass player has been quietly crafting an impressive collection of cinematic soundtracks for imaginary, and occasionally real, films that rarely garner much attention in the United States. It’s a shame really that he is not well known, for the music he’s been making all these years is thrilling. Know Where To Run is his latest offering and is perhaps his most satisfying to date. Know Where To Run is not based on an imaginary or real film but it is drawn from a number of photos Adamson took while on tour recently with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.

After starting off with an organ-heavy instrumental, Adamson shifts gears with track two,“Cine City.” Here he asserts “I’ve got a killer on my left, a killer on my right, and a solid gold ticket to the end of my life,” while taking us on a dark hard-driving ride through cityscapes. On “Come Away” he switches the mood up again with a piano-driven tune revealing that his years with Nick Cave were not without some note taking. “Death Takes A Holiday” moves and grooves with a swing feel coupled with a lush disco-like chorus that underscores Adamson wry sense of humor. The absolutely gorgeous “Claw And Wing” takes a page out of the Burt Bacharach playbook and the crooner years of those early Scott Walker albums. Then on “Texas Crash” Adamson creates a song that unfolds with the cinematic breadth of a full-blown film noir soundtrack in the span of six minutes.  And while sweeping, cinematic sounds dominate much of his output, Adamson is more than capable writing straight-ahead rockers as demonstrated on the ’80s-inspired “Up In The Air.”

Know Where To Run contains a wide range of styles while maintaining a consistency that keeps it cohesive. Its success stands on the strength of the songs and adept craftsmanship Adamson brings to the production. It is a delight from start to finish.

5. The Dear Hunter: Act V: Hymns With The Devil In Confessional 

The Dear Hunter’s Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise was my favorite album of 2015. I sort of stumbled upon that gem when I found myself sufficiently intrigued by the cover to want to know what I would discover inside. I knew little about the band except that I confused them with the very different, but shared homophone named band called Deerhunter. After my first listen I was immediately swept up by its power. Needless to say I no longer confused the bands. In the ensuing year I’ve sought out more music from the band as well as information about the elaborate story behind the band’s planned six-album rock opera. Rather than go into details about the concept — which I think is beyond the scope of what I want to relay here — I instead urge you to listen to Act V on its own and should you find it as exciting as I did, begin your own exploration of the music and story within.

Most concept albums are commonly greeted with, at best, a lukewarm response, or worse, outright contempt. A band in its nascent state planning to record a concept that will unfold over the course of six albums seems like career suicide before even getting started. For Casey Crescendo, leader and composer behind The Dear Hunter, such an idea is simply the type of challenge he sets out for himself. Act I: The Lake South, The River North, released in 2006, began the story that revolves around the birth, life and death of a boy named “The Dear Hunter.” Now 10 years later, the band and concept are going strong.

Act V was apparently recorded at the same time as Act IV, which explains the quick turnaround time between releases. While there is much that is sonically similar between the two, Act V is nonetheless its own animal and nearly as fantastic as its predecessor. Besides the narrative continuity that drives the story, Act V delivers the grand musical eloquence we come to expect from the band. There are many styles explored throughout the album including folk, progressive rock, ballads, as well as lush orchestrations and a touch of swinging crooner pop reminiscent of Bobby Darin. All of the music on Act V stands effectively on its own yet maintains a cohesion that unifies all the albums and serves the story. It is a magnificent album and a rare example of a concept album whose success is not only the imagined story within but most importantly the astonishing music held between its grooves.    

Rounding out my list of favorites are five more albums of fantastic music that I returned to quite often throughout the past year. Knifeworld followed up my best of the year from 2014 with Bottled Out Of Eden, another thrilling album of quirky, angular and chaotic musical madness. Meanwhile Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds gave us a dark ruminating album of loss with Skeleton Tree. It’s a difficult album to listen to, especially coming on the heels of the accidental death of Cave’s son. “All the things we love, we lose,” he sings on “Anthrocene,” which also seems to captures 2016 quite well. On its third release, Syd Arthur continues to grow with the shimmering and delightful, jazz inflicted trippy pop music of Apricity. For the more pastoral minded, Big Big Train provided us with Folklore, its stellar take on progressive folk blending just the right amount of influence from Jethro Tull and Genesis to create an exquisite album filled with lovely melodies and gorgeous arrangements. Lastly, The Luck Of Eden Hall gave us the fabulous The Acceleration Of Time, an album of incandescent beauty and brilliant psychedelic technicolor sounds. 

There are plenty more albums that moved me this past year, but these were the ones that spoke to me most strongly. It was a strange year in many ways. It was a  year where heartbreak and loss reigned, a year when we sought comfort in the arms of  friends and in the sounds of our favorite music. Even with the darkest of music, a positive transformation can occur, as evidenced by the releases from David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. For despite the despair, music has always been a beacon of hope, a ray of light to transform even our most dire moments. 2016 was certainly a year that needed reclaiming and thanks to a number of artists, that was possible.

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2 Comments to “My Favorite Music To Reclaim 2016”

  1. A good read, Jim. I’m posting later today in the same vein myself, and it will probably not surprise you to hear that the first three are also on my ‘Top 5’!
    All the best for 2017.

  2. Jim Laugelli says:

    Thanks Bruce. Look forward to reading your post. As they say, like minds…

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