Tuesday, January 3, 2017

It’s VIII: We

Favorite albums, 2016

[1] Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution

Eau Claire, 10/28/16: Spalding walked on stage and stopped the show before it had begun. Tentative, doubtful, she questioned whether she still believed in the music she was about to play, or in the ideas she’d formulated about “evolution,” whatever that means. After some minutes of reflection, a little silence, she told her band they’d be going off script tonight, improvising new ideas on the same theme. They didn’t look ready for such an adventure, simulating the same anxiety the audience was no doubt feeling. Then, as Spalding’s monologue shifted into “Farewell Dolly” and the feint was revealed, I sighed in relief from the most genuinely uncomfortable ten minutes of theater I’d ever experienced. The ensuing presentation of Emily’s D+Evolution, in shuffled order, reaffirmed that its music is outside of doubt and that its material is inexhaustible, a new and different bildungsroman in any permutation. I hadn’t considered “Unconditional Love” as an ending before.

[2] Kamaiyah, A Good Night in the Ghetto

In which Kamaiyah refutes the cliche that youth is wasted on the young. I imagined her for the first listen as an older MC finally recording the soundtrack to some long gone night, wise at last to the value of her former vitality and joy, confusion and solace. Fuck that: living is wisdom. Anyway, this was the year’s catchiest album by miles, meaning only that I played it a bunch on headphones.

[3] case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs

I still find veirs’ stamp most evident here, in the harmonies, in the strings, in inimitable little melodic bits, but I erred in glossing over case’s and lang’s contributions. So: case provides moments of metacognitive reflection, gripping when she describes depression as a leveling of “sweet delight” and “endless night,” or when she sings of “delirium kaleidoscoping in.” lang, with the eloquent understatement of a true professional, sings primarily of the crying game, albeit from a partial remove, as the too-wise narrator of her own heartbreak. Combine these things with veirs’ tales of ordinary heroes with “hearts in the right place,” and the album becomes a catalog for the times: how to live well, how to listen well. These artists live in and sing from gray areas, but, impossibly, they still believe in goodness.

[4] A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

The greatest album-in-progress since Neneh Cherry’s Blank Project. Tribe never lacked for spontaneity but I can almost hear the tape running here, especially when the drum track repeatedly cuts in and out, not always in the cleanest way. That wouldn’t mean much if this album didn’t send a relentless buzzing excitement through my body, right up to its final syllables: “Phife Dawg.” I never knew the departed hero of a work to remain so fully present and nameable in its final second, his death entirely outside of it.

[5] Jeff Runnings, Primitives and Smalls

Earlier — “My most-jammed collection of moody gay summer anthems since Bob Mould’s Modulate.” Still true, and no accident that I referenced an album released in my teen years: the sounds on Primitives are foundational to my tastes.

[6] M83, Junk

A brief parable: I finally got around to ABC’s Beauty Stab last month, after being told to avoid it ever since The Lexicon of Love first enriched my world, and found that time has made its reputation incomprehensible. It’s clearly the work of the same imagination, with slightly different instrumentation. (I’d usually argue that music is for now, basically, but sometimes we know too much and need to lose a little context.)

[7] Dawn Richard, Redemption

I keep hearing the closing line (minus the outro) as: “You belong shitting in the Louvre.” That’s probably an obscene overreach, but it also allows me to put D∆WN alongside Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the rare artist capable of eliding animal function and human art with any degree of sensitivity.

[8] Underworld, Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future

Earlier — “A teeming 45 minutes in which clarity and sense of purpose yield a kind of holiness that I usually associate with photography or film: Robert Adams’ This Day, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.”

open me up / I want to hold you laughing

[9] King, We Are King

In which King create something new under the sun, an L.A. musical universe unto itself. And, despite being the work of a trio, this universe is no smaller than the neighboring one overseen by Flying Lotus and sometimes enlisted by Kendrick Lamar.

[10] Evans The Death, Vanilla

Speaking of bands, Evans The Death foreground the virtues of making art as a collective and yet avoid debasing themselves with any moment that could be described as “soaring,” “anthemic,” or “life-affirming.” If anything they sound more beaten down by life and drained of melody than on 2015’s Expect Delays, though at least Katherine Whitaker gets a little help on vocals this time, occasional reprieve from self-loathing. Have I made this album sound unpleasant? Quite the opposite!


The albums released by Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly and Kate Bush in 2016 totaled eight discs, so I’ll have to find time for those in the new year. At the other end of things, I can verify that the short albums released by Circuit Des Yeux (as Jackie Lynn) and Wire, both in the 20-minute range, were excellent. A dozen more normal-length albums I loved:

Pete Astor, Spilt Milk
Bat for Lashes, The Bride
David Bowie, Blackstar
DIIV, Is The Is Are
Cate Le Bon, Crab Day
The Monkees, Good Times!
Noname, Telefone
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Emma Pollock, In Search of Harperfield
The Radio Dept., Running Out of Love
School of Seven Bells, SVIIB
Jamila Woods, HEAVN

Sunday Night 1987.

I learned about Bowie from an acquaintance on the bus, as she talked about struggling to tell her boyfriend the news, thus inadvertently dropping the news on me. I learned about Prince from a purple sheet of paper taped to the wall of a high school hallway. My heart sped when I saw it contained his symbol and an R.I.P. On the bus ride home a mother carried an infant, and I thought about how this child was alive on this day but would need to be told its significance on a later day. Deep, I know.

For all the talk about how these artists helped challenge and redefine ideas of sexual identity, I never felt that kind of connection to their work, much as I love the music. But, come to think of it, I learned a few things about the stigma of gay life by hearing relentless jokes about George Michael’s private life in the 90s, though I don’t know that I interpreted the lesson right away. It makes me ill to think about it now. I started this new year with his 1996 album Older and hope to spend the rest of it aspiring to the word in its title. I similarly aspire to faith, patience, and listening without prejudice, though not to everyone. Some people don’t deserve it. Meanwhile I long for another hitmaker in George Michael’s mold. He wrote straightforwardly catchy songs but he also wrote songs like “Jesus to a Child,” which demands to be played again and again because the melody can’t be heard with any fidelity by the mind’s ear, instead requiring a skilled singer to deliver it. (In 2017 I’ll continue to learn about R&B.)

Prince Be died younger than all of these men. P.M. Dawn probably sampled all of them, too, though “Father Figure” on 1993’s eternal The Bliss Album is the only one I can confirm. Remembered convergences in the lives of the dead gave me some comfort in 2016. Of all the artists I’ll miss, Prince Be is the one I resolve to tell you about next chance I get.

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