Ideally, I would've written about music throughout the year. Year-end lists attempt to make a canon or time capsule, but I realized that every time I buy a piece of music as physical media I am doing so based on the assumption that it is something I will want to return to in the future, and so I desire the physical form as a reminder of its existence. There should be more to music listening, to sharing what you value, than a simple showing of receipts, a browsing of shelves. Music, made of the passage of time, should have words to note it, as it happens. I wrote a few write-ups early on in the year for a magazine that never came out, but really most conversations about music were had in person, and marked by an inability to remember what I'd been listening to. I apologize in advance for the extent to which these write-ups/explanations are mostly just attempts to give context, rather than explain how the records make me feel.
The two most notable things were the reissues of Syrinx and Dow Jones And The Industrials. Dow Jones And The Industrials were a midwestern synth-punk band, in the late seventies in Indiana, comparable to Pere Ubu or Devo both in their instrumentation and in the sense of East Coast geography that reduces the Midwest to an indistinct blur. They are also similarly actually good, which isn't always a given when dealing with dug-up examples of trends viewed nostalgically. Their songs are occasionally "dumb" in that sort of perfect garage band way, where things are simplistic and straightforward, unpretentious in a way that can be associated with the midwest but that most wouldn't ascribe to the other bands I mentioned who have sort of "art school" reputations. Syrinx are even better, basically: A trio of synthesizer, saxophone, and percussion from Canada in the early seventies, doing psychedelic melodic miniatures that feel very rich, who opened Canadian dates for the electric-era Miles Davis band. The compilation Tumblers From The Vault includes two LPs and a recording of a performance done with an orchestra. The main composer, John Mills-Cockell, who plays the synth, had an earlier group, an art collective called Intersystems, whose work was also reissued this year as a box set, but that stuff is essentially too far out for me, which I mean as high praise. Sine wave wobble and spoken word creating very intense psychedelic atmospheres that are too intense for background listening, essentially demanding the sort of "don't freak out" attention those with drug experience might find disconcertingly familiar. Those are the reissues that, in their rearrangement of material, are basically new. The first three solo albums of Colin Newman from Wire were reissued this year, and while I haven't spent a ton of time with any of them, what I've heard has been pretty enjoyable, the logical follow-up to Chairs Missing I didn't know existed, since 154 is such left-turn.
I also spent a lot of time listening to a two-CD reissue of the first four albums Arthur Blythe did for Columbia in the late seventies and early eighties. Blythe is an alto saxophonist, who plays on Julius Hemphill's Coon Bidness, and this stuff is sort of similarly funky/ritualistic. There's various approaches, but my favorite stuff is with an electric band, which switched up its membership, but at various points has James Blood Ulmer on guitar, Abdul Wadud on cello, people on tuba, flute, etc. If you look up the song "Bush Baby" on Illusions on Youtube that's a highlight. It's a particular kind of "eighties jazz" which can feels post-Can but also has the sort of neon brightness of a Michael Mann movie or something. Most jazz from the eighties doesn't feel like this, and it was a famously conservative decade in terms of what was popular. The cover art for "Lenox Avenue Breakdown," depicting a drawing of a house on a corner shaped like a saxophone also feels exemplary of a particular era in that there's a type of corniness but it also feels really refreshing to take in now.
The most exciting new band for me would be Guerilla Toss, who I know are not actually a new band, but whose older material never grabbed me. It's possible the shift into greater focus is attributable to a new bass player, but either way. I have described their new LP Eraser Stargazer as "like Dog Faced Hermans but with a synth instead of a trumpet" and while that is fucking great and exactly what I want to hear, imagine my delight to discover that the 4-song Flood Dosed 12-inch adds saxophone and percussion to bring it into more of a Remain In Light/afrobeat proposition, and that the EP of remixes by Giant Claw, which removes all the live band instrumentation in favor of detailed synth/midi moving landscapes, is just as beautifully arranged while sounding completely different.A single CD collects both of the latter two releases.
In a similar area, but lower-profile, were a couple of releases put forth by OSR Tapes by Salt People and Listening Woman. They are similarly female-fronted no-wave-ish bands, but with expanded ensembles, jazzier, but in a way that simultaneously seems like they might be reading from sheet music, or being conducted, the vocals marginally more operatic in their delivery, bringing them more into an art-song zone. I discovered OSR Tapes a through years ago, through its proprietor Zach Phillips, of the band Blanche Blanche Blanche, who had releases on Night People and Feeding Tube Records. This year, I discovered Jake Tobin through his having releases on both OSR and Haord Records. Haord is a fascinating label, run by the same people who put together the Spider's Pee-Paw comic anthology, which works with a sort of molten CGI mutation of the Tim And Eric visual aesthetic. The musical analog to that visual is this sort of Residents-y, maniacal synth-pop of sped-up vocals, and abrasive rhythms. There's a sense of landscape to this music you might know from the Verhoeven Total Recall. The label's flagship band, Macula Dog, put out a record on Wharf Cat Records this year I would recommend, Why Do You Look Like Your Dog. The Jake Tobin tape on OSR is marginally gentler: More of a human-kitten hybrid with a snout in a can of ravioli than a cybernetic doofus working in a factory, but obviously both of these images coexist within the same future.
My favorite Young Thug record of the year was Slime Season 3. I've said in the past that Young Thug's voice is an instrument, and I realize that specifically it is like an extremely well-played set of tape manipulations, speeding up and slowing down in its yelps. It is not that far from the stuff on Haord, really, but the beats are made on a computer, and the voice is elastic on top of it.
In the realm of rap records where lyrics were important, and songs were about discreet topics that can be summarized, I enjoyed Aesop Rock's The Impossible Kid. Self-produced, personal, but language obscure enough to not be confessional. I know the critical conversation is pretty far away from praising work like this these days, but that is largely because of the amount of investment it asks from a listener, and how much the artist himself is putting into making a true achievement.
I would say my favorite jazz record of the year was made by the Mary Halvorson Octet, their album Away With You. Mary is a guitar player, with a clean tone, and she leads this group through compositions with a lot of space, the horns present but not foregrounded. Halvorson played on one of my favorite jazz records of last year as well, the Tomeka Reid Quartet, but I didn't hear that until this year. I don't know how much relevance jazz has to the larger world in 2016, but there's something about this stuff, where the players are clearly listening to one another, and giving them space, that feels instructive. The thing that makes this one an Octet as opposed to the previous Septet is the presence of Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitar. The presence of guitar and pedal steel makes it feel rooted in folk music. It feels like a late afternoon record, light coming through the curtains.
The use of pedal steel connects it in my mind to Itasca's Open To Chance, a quiet folk record. Itasca was previously a solo project, deeply lonesome. Now there's more embellishments, flute, violin, drums, but the feel of it hasn't changed considerably. The pastoral idylls are just more detailed, including birds instead of only trees. I also enjoyed this year's Angel Olsen record, My Woman, which will probably be on a great number of high-profile year-end lists. The desolate folk vibes of her earlier records are gone, replaced by bright colors, electric guitars, rock and roll. As the music paints a happier feeling image, the lyrics tend towards these love songs, sung from a place of utter desperation, and a willingness to be less than a romantic partner. The vision of romantic love on the earlier records seemed much more hopeful and healthy to me, but this is a good record of pop songs, still.
On the opposite end of the spectrum would be the Moth Cock/Form A Log split. Moth Cock puts free-jazz blurts inside a garbled intuitive mess of electronics and comes up with something fist-pounding, drugged-out party music that is abstract, psychotic. Form A Log are more repetitive, looping, but off-beat enough to never be rigid, off-beat both in terms of the loose "swing" they possess but also the weird sense of structure and tension they employ. It's satisfying. Their noise feels related to that of Black Dice, who put out some good stuff this year: A 12-inch single, a side-project called Spiked Punch, and Eric Copeland's solo record Black Bubblegum, which is a a dumb summertime pop record that I loved but will probably not listen to again until next summer. It follows up on the experiments with vocals he has been exploring on seven-inches for years but while those songs had titles like "Vampire Blues" that made me think of something older, becoming musty, this feels brighter, bouncier, although still degraded: Like a little kid sticky with spilled fruit punch, singing pop-punk melodies without knowing any of the actual words.
Katie Gately makes incredibly detailed, rich sounding electronic music: If I liken the hyperactivity of Haord Records stuff to landscapes, this is atmospheres and ecosystems, viruses becoming a part of DNA. It is glossy, Gately's day job is apparently doing sound design for Hollywood films, but any review comparing it to pop music is way off. It's symphonic, alien stuff: To me it is easier to imagine her producing noise bands, mixing their work for maximum impact and nuance, then creating backing tracks for pop singers.
Considerably closer to pop music is this year's Olga Bell record, Tempo. The voice remains upfront, in focus, the negative space allows the drum programming to hit, the other textures are melodic, gorgeous. I was unfamiliar with Olga Bell's older, classical material and can't really imagine how listeners familiar with that stuff would've processed this, but it's a thrilling, human, record. I listened to it, and the new Chairlift record, Moth, a lot. The song structures are different, but both had hooks that stuck in my head, and both felt good to listen to, creating a sense of relief in the space they created, and how they allowed the body to fill it.
Meanwhile, I listened to the ANOHNI record, Hopelessness, maybe twice, and it's the record I would say was the "record of the year," a masterpiece, etc. It's a huge-sounding thing, an emotional record about things actually worth getting upset about, and makes the listener aware of how complicit they are in the world we are unmaking. I still have never listened to Antony And The Johnstons, and so was unaware of what a voice she has. I was more familiar with Oneohtrix Point Never, who does some of the production, but I haven't spent that much time with those records either. The huge human voice in these dispiriting digital spaces, that drips with a gloss that is nonetheless a type of viscera, is deeply affecting, and the emotional core of the record is dispiriting and necessary, even as the only catharsis to be had comes from accepting one's part in an almost nihilistic fashion. Listening to this record feels like being on social media, and it is not surprising that presented with that option, we choose to log off for our health, but still, what an achievement. I imagine songs about being disappointed in Obama will make this record feel dated in a year's time, when even the most adamant and earnest leftist will be awash in nostalgia for the merest illusion of decency.
I also wanted to just list these additional records, while distinguishing that they were runners-up, not quite my personal top tier. I wanted to leave it as a comment but Blogger wouldn't let me, because it was too long.
But immediately before writing such an addition I realized that Lil Ugly Mane's Oblivion Access was released right at the end of 2015, after I made my "best of the year" list, and that record is incredible. A bluesy lament, with noise, it's happy songs have this kind of melancholy grace that I loved and listened to a lot, although the whole record is very well-sequenced for balancing the noisy elements with the songs. I wrote about it for a magazine that never came out. In the same magazine, I also wrote about The Body's No One Deserves Happiness, which I think is great, but putting one metal album on my list when I basically heard no other metal seemed extremely unhelpful for being unconvincing.
The Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith record Ears occupies a similar place to the Syrinx reissues, and my description of the Katie Gately record could apply to it as well. But it is a little more new-agey, and so could be considered boring, although I liked it, and her previous album, Euclid, plenty. Her collaboration with Suzanne Ciani that RVNG put out I don't think of as being as good.
The record Haley Fohr from Circuit Des Yeux made under the name Jackie Lynn is good but too short. It occupies a space sort of like Suicide or Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, but calmer than each.
The thing I wrote about Guerilla Toss, where I endorsed everything they did, could be applied to Deerhoof as well- Their LP The Magic was better than their last several records, their collaboration with a classical composer was interesting, the record John Dietrich made with Jeremy Barnes called The Coral Casino was totally listenable and fun. They remain the best live band this side of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and all of the interviews I read with the members this year were inspiring. I sort of take Deerhoof for granted, and in the context of a year-end list where the goal is to highlight music people might not have heard, I wrote about Guerilla Toss because they are a newer band.
Greg Saunier from Deerhoof is maybe my favorite working drummer, but Jim White would have to be somewhere in the top five. His duo, Xylouris White, where he accompanies a guy who plays the lauoto, a stringed instrument also called the cretan lute, who is performing what my understanding has as traditional greek folk songs, put out a record this year, Black Peak, which I would recommend to anyone who enjoys Rangda, or the various post-John-Fahey/post-Jack-Rose acoustic guitar records so beloved by people I follow on Twitter who also really like the Grateful Dead. It's not my favorite mode, but it's good. It's also vaguely comparable to the Mary Halvorson Octet record.
I thought Johann Johannson's score to Arrival was really good when I was watching the movie, enough to stick around waiting for the credits to tell me who did it. I haven't listened to it as a separate piece of music. It's sort of in a similar space to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's Ears too, actually.
The new A Tribe Called Quest album is really good, at least based on the one time I listened to it. Tribe isn't my favorite rap group, not even of that school or style. I much prefer the "classic" De La Soul albums to the classic Tribe records. But the new De La Soul record is a stinker, without a ton of rapping on it, and vaguely sounding like a Gorillaz record, and a total disappointment that set a low bar Tribe easily cleared.
The new Vince Staples EP is really good but also too short. The tracks produced by James Blake are good and cool, I had never listened to James Blake but heard his new record this year and thought it was cool, I should maybe spend more time with his work. Again, he's getting attention from other people and I felt he didn't need my help in this write-up. I should clarify that the things I say I only listened to once I heard when someone else put them on at the record store I work at, which is a different kind of "I only listened to it once" than iTunes stats.
Patterns Of Light, the new His Name Is Alive record I also really enjoyed. I find it compulsively listenable, something I'm drawn to. I really like the last few records he's made with his new vocalist, in the last ten years or so. They're all on his Bandcamp now. It's an indie rock in a very particular way, pre-release hype describing it as like Free Design songwriting and vocals with Thin Lizzy guitar heroics is pretty accurate. I didn't include it on my list essentially because I don't trust how comforting I find it, and I think I prefer to highlight things that feel a little more alienating, things that hold me with a bit more tension.