Best Of 2016
(strictly for fun and heated argument)
By Peter Jesperson
1. David Bowie - Blackstar
Nothing released in 2016 could mean more to me than this album. I will be eternally grateful to have been able to listen to it for three days before getting the news of his death. Word came to me the night of Sunday, January 10th. I’d had Blackstar on constant repeat since getting it on Friday, Bowie’s 69th birthday. My good friend Michelle was in town from Nashville. We did what we always do - listen to music and get caught up on what each other had been doing. She hadn’t heard Blackstar yet so of course that was top of the bill. She seemed to be as taken with it as I. Michelle left around 11 pm. I was shutting off lights and heading to bed and thought I’d check my e-mail one last time. And there it was. In the subject of an e-mail from another pal, Steve:
David bowie dies
I googled “David Bowie.”
A numbness set in.
As a lifelong music enthusiast, David Bowie stands out for me. His music took me by storm in a way very few others did. In the splintered, compartmentalized, dizzyingly broad in scope, social media-driven popular music world of 2016, it may be hard for some to grasp how radical David Bowie was when he first appeared. In their day, Elvis Presley and Little Richard, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were an affront to the establishment, my parents included. David Bowie entered the picture for me in late 1971, during my senior year in high school. His 4th album, Hunky Dory, was recommended to me by one of my most important early music mentors, Duncan Hannah. Not only did Bowie also outrage the general public, but my extreme reaction to his music actually alienated me from several of my friends. People seemed frightened by him. And though my father and I never talked about it, I believe to this day that my Bowie obsession made him wonder if I might be homosexual. I must admit, I even surprised myself by being utterly unable to resist making a pilgrimage to Chicago and Detroit to see him live on his first American tour in the fall of 1972 (“Life-changing” only begins to describe the experience but that’s another story).
Making lists and determining an order to our favorite records and artists has long been an exercise in my circle of fellow music enthusiasts. I’ve been a Beatles-Stones-Dylan guy pretty much all my life and my relationship with Bowie’s music was similar. I can’t articulate how or why but, like that impassable Top Three, it was in a category of its own. The impact his music had on me was profound and vast … I was consumed by it.
But I digress, let’s get to the topic at hand.
Surprisingly, Blackstar came fast on the heels of The Next Day (2013), which had been Bowie’s first new album in a decade. That surely added an urgency we could only sense at first. Both albums are extremely dark affairs, though darkness was hardly a stranger to Bowie’s oeuvre.
Blackstar is not a short album (41 minutes and change) but, if you’d been paying close attention, it felt like less, because four of the seven songs on it had been previously released. “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” and “Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” were put out as a single in 2014 (note: both were re-recorded for Blackstar); and the title track and “Lazarus” came out digitally ahead of the album. After countless listens, it’s still hard for me to hear these seven songs as a plenary work unto itself. We now know Bowie had been working feverishly to complete the album as his health declined and I can’t help but think it might have been different, somehow more complete, had his time not been limited. This is not a criticism, it is an observation.
Blackstar begins with the almost ten-minute title track. One of Bowie’s most ambitious songs, it takes its time setting the stage for the collection we are about to hear. It’s a two-part song with a bridge I find reminiscent of his Man Who Sold The World period. “Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is a frenetic rocker that would have fit on 1995’s Outside (I might prefer the earlier, single take; it’s raunchier and more mad sounding). And - dig this - the lyric was allegedly based on a play written in the year 1629 … you know, typical rock songwriting fare! And we can’t mention the song without referencing the opening line, “Man, she punched me like a dude …” Next up is “Lazarus,” a gripping recording that, like a number of songs on The Next Day, has a vocal that sounds like it coulda been cut for the 3rd album in the Eno/Berlin trilogy, 1979’s Lodger. “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime),” was discussed in its single form on my 2014 Best Of, suffice to say this is one crazy track, musically and lyrically. Blackstar’s 5th track is where we get into the first of the three exquisite “new” songs. An offbeat number, “Girl Loves Me” mixes regular ol’ English with two other languages: one called Nasat, invented by author Anthony Burgess for his novel A Clockwork Orange; and Polari, a form of British slang that may date as far back as the 16th century. Contains the memorable lyric, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” That he felt he still had work left to do is made clear in this line from “Dollar Days”: “I’m dying to/ Push their backs against the grain/And fool them all again and again.” And lastly, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” with its beautiful, melancholic melody and Fripp-esque guitar section is an apt closer. The Donny McCaslin Band shines, their backing is eager and sensitive; and unique, coming from a jazz background, though Bowie had been experimenting with jazz-ish elements as far back as 1973’s Aladdin Sane. That it feels hurried and/or somewhat fragmented does not undo its overall impact. These are powerful, frequently autobiographical songs, written and recorded as he was facing death head-on. This is David Bowie bidding us adieu.
Post-script: There were three essential additional tracks recorded during the Blackstar sessions that were released in the fall: “When I Met You,” “Killing A Little Time” and the plaintive “No Plan,” which strikes me as the saddest lyric of all:
All of the things that are my life
My desire, my beliefs, my moods
Here is my place without a plan
2. Bob Dylan - The 1966 Live Recordings
Another enormous set of mostly unreleased Bob Dylan recordings and I ain’t complaining! Tapes and bootlegs of a few of the shows had circulated over the years. Most notably the legendary UK show (Manchester, May 17th) when, in response to Dylan strapping on an electric guitar and playing with a rock n’ roll band, someone in the audience cried out “Judas!” But to have all extant 1966 live recordings - 23 shows here on 36 CDs - is to witness almost first-hand one of the most exciting and important showdowns in the history of 20th century music. The shows were done in two parts, a 7-song solo acoustic set and an 8-song electric set. The song selection is almost exactly the same night to night but the differences in the performances are fascinating.
Some nights, like in Sheffield on May 16th, Bob’s harmonica is so beautiful, almost otherworldy, that it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up - for example, the outro of “Just Like A Woman” and the lengthy solo and outro on “Mr. Tambourine Man.” More than once while introducing “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues,” Bob goes on a long, hilarious, spoken ramble about Tom Thumb being a 135 year old painter who went through a blue period.
There are some notable variations in the lyrics. A few of the performances are as good as the studio versions. And it completely boggles my mind to try to imagine what it would have been like to be in one of those audiences and to hear for the first time as-yet-unreleased-songs like “Visions Of Johanna,” Fourth Time Around” and “Just Like A Woman.” The acoustic sets are riveting. But the most dramatic and thrilling differences are during the electric sets. Garth Hudson’s keyboard parts are often startling and are never the same twice. Danko and Manuel shine as players and backing vocalists. Drummer Mickey Jones’ aggressive and unselfconscious playing drives the band. And Robbie Robertson’s guitar work is the stuff of legend (check out his inspired staccato playing on the breakdown in “Tell Me Mama”!). As folk purists in the audiences become increasingly hostile and disruptive, Bob and the band clench their teeth, crank up the guitars and deliver some of the most vitriolic, pissed off and inspiring rock music ever played.
3. Broncho - Double Vanity
To my ears, one of three or four current candidates for title of Best Band On The Planet. A deft mix of the simple and the complex; garage rock and pop with an arty slant, like some kinda sinister T Rex. And they kill it live.
4. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
Another installment in Cohen’s remarkable late career renaissance. Like Bowie, he looks his mortality straight in the eye, putting words to it that make for some difficult listening, but the songs transcend. News of Leonard’s death in November was unexpected, his illness had been kept secret. But he leaves us with yet another beautiful work of art, for which I am very grateful.
I’m deeply indebted to Leonard Cohen. Like Bob Dylan, the impact he had on me, not just musically but also as a poet, is immeasurable. Of course, there had been poetic lyrics in songs for centuries but surely Dylan and Cohen ushered in a new era of words in music. The power of words had been ingrained in me from an early age by my bookworm mother. As a 12 year-old, I had an instant connection to “Suzanne,” the 1966 song that launched his career. The language of it enthralled me, a tantalizing harbinger. (http://www.leonardcohen.com)
5. Ian Hunter - Fingers Crossed
How does Ian Hunter do it? How has he managed to make records in the 2000s that are on a par with (or close to) his best of the 1960s and 70s? Fingers Crossed is his fourth album in a row to scale such heights. The hallmarks of his tried and true sound are here - the blending of electric guitars and keys; anthemic and intelligent songs; the raspy, tender, at times Dylan-ish, vocals, delivered with a decidedly British dramatic flair; and, of course, it rocks. Of special note is the sweet Bowie tribute song, “Dandy,” which melts my heart.
6. Wire - Nocturnal Koreans (EP)
It’s important to note that these tracks were recorded during the sessions for 2015’s most excellent self-titled album. But it’s also important to note that these tracks are by no means throwaways. They’re simply tracks that didn’t fit on last year’s full-length. So it can’t be judged as a complete work in the same way their stunning, return-to-form records of the last few years can be. But it is still essential to Wire fans and music nuts in general. Dark, brooding and funny, the production is gorgeous. Wire’s music hits me today as hard as it did in their initial heyday.
7. Elle Belle - Wako Gumbo
Sprawling new project from Christopher Pappas, the man behind New England outfit now residing in Los Angeles, The Everyday Visuals. Where the EVs may have leaned folk-pop, EB is more eclectic, a bit all over the map, a sort of mad-scientist-pop-psychedelia-garage-rock. What remains consistent in Christopher’s work is the care with which he approaches the vocals, harmonies in particular. One of my very favorite artists recording today. (check out Christopher’s other recent side-project Miracle Parade.)
8. Halfway - The Golden Halfway Record
This is one of my most played albums of the year. Brainy, literate rock n’ roll with a rootsy slant. Their fifth album and first recorded in the states, overseen by Nashville producer Mark Nevers (Lambchop, Bonnie Prince Billy, Jason Isbell).
9. Catfish & The Bottlemen - Ride
Here’s one that took our household by storm, Jennifer, Autry and I all went NUTS over these guys on first listen. That first listen was courtesy of LA’s best radio station, KCSN (88.5, Cal State University, Northridge) when they played the song ”Soundcheck.” We were instantly HOOKED! These guys are a full-tilt rock n’ roll band with hooks galore, great lyrics and a killer vocalist. There are so many dazzling songs on this album that it feels like you’re listening to a Greatest Hits collection. And seeing them live was sumthin’ else - apart from one solo acoustic performance by Ace frontman, Van McCann, it was a non-stop ROCK SHOW! Made to be played LOUD, this is the kind of record that restores my faith in music and mankind!
10. Alejandro Escovedo - Burn Something Beautiful
The raw production is key to the album’s depth and power. Real rock n’ roll! Fabulous songs! There’s a great cast of characters assisting Alejandro here, shout-outs are especially in order to Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck (both co-producing/playing/co-writing) and Kurt Bloch (lead guitar).
11. Kurt Vile - B’lieve I’m Goin Down … (2015)
I am a latecomer to the Vile camp. I was so taken with the War On Drugs records that I naturally wanted to explore their connections to other artists (Kurt was in WoDs for their first two albums). One day on a record shopping trip, I ran into a used copy of Kurt’s Childish Prodigy and snapped it up. Got it home and - BOOM! - instant fan! I slowly picked up his other releases and immersed myself.
12. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam - I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
A solid and diverse collaboration by the Walkmen frontman and former key Vampire Weekend member. The sound/production is fantastic.
13. The Head & The Heart - Signs Of Light
I fell hard for the first Head & The Heart album (2010) and their stunning live show. This 3rd album might just be their best yet. The songs, with Jay Joyce’s production and Dave Sardy’s mixes, are outstanding.
14. Steve Gunn - Eyes On The Lines
Another purchase inspired by my infatuation with The War On Drugs / Kurt Vile (Steve was in Vile’s band, the Violators), this Philly area guitarist captured my imagination bigtime. His mesmerizing live show was one of the best I saw all year, it was guitar heaven in a Television-esque/two lead guitarists sort of way. Though as my friend Robb Henry pointed out, Gunn’s style is less dark and more melodic, maybe more Danny Kirwan than Tom Verlaine.
15. Mudcrutch - Mudcrutch 2
Much better than the first Mudcrutch album, this is one durable record. A terrific addition to the Tom Petty catalog. “I Forgive It All” is one of Tom’s best songs and one I played constantly.
16. Lambchop - Flotus
A beautiful and wonderfully confounding album. The sound is highlighted by longer instrumental passages than we’re accustomed to on previous Lambchop records and an interesting new effects box that loops voice and/or guitar, giving the album a distinctive flavor.
For reasons I can’t put my finger on, I don’t play it often, nowhere near as much as 2012’s Mr M. Could just be me, being distracted by other records at the moment and I’ll circle back to it down the road a piece.
17. William Bell - This Is Where I Live
An actual, honest-to-goodness Soul album by the man who wrote the words to “Born Under A Bad Sign” (among many other soul classics). The title song in particular really spoke to me, one of my most played songs of the year.
18. Leslie Stevens - The Donkey And The Rose
Recorded in 2012 but only just released, the album is further evidence of what a tremendous artist Leslie is.
19. Paul Simon - Stranger To Stranger
A record I wasn’t expecting to like so much, this got lots of airplay around our house throughout the year.
20. The Monkees - Good Times!
Here’s one that caught me completely by surprise. I fell in love with The Monkees the second I heard “Last Train To Clarksville” on the radio in 1966, but always considered them a singles band, had never been a fan of their albums as a whole. One couldn’t help but be suspicious of a group that was so blatantly prefabricated (put together by television producers to appeal to a Beatle-obsessed teen audience). Not to mention being skeptical of reunion albums and the whole current trend of looking for hip, current songwriters for cred. But Fountains Of Wayne co-founder/songwriter/bassist Adam Schlesinger helped the band fashion a solid album, including terrific songs written for the project by the likes of Andy Partridge, Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller and Rivers Cuomo. But the real capper for me is a stunner written by Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab For Cutie) entitled “Me & Magdalena.” Ben says in the liner notes that contributing this song to the album was “the greatest honor of my career.” I bet I played this one track a hundred times in the last year. Sung by Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz, it made me rethink my entire perception of the Monkees as a band … with all due respect, I had no idea they were capable of doing something this artistic. If for only this one track, this album is a must-hear. Not to mention a posthumous duet between Micky and Harry Nilsson on the title song!
21. The Jayhawks - Paging Mr. Proust
A fine new album with some classic ‘Hawks songs. Another record done in Portland, co-produced by Peter Buck, along with Tucker Martine and Head ‘Hawk Gary Louris. “Quiet Corners And Empty Spaces” was one of my most played songs of the year.
22. Nap Eyes - Thought Rock Fish Scale
From Halifax, Nova Scotia. I saw these guys live, opening for Steve Gunn, and loved the set. Smart stuff with a poetic slant and an odd sense of humor.
23. Lydia Loveless - REAL
A fine Americana album that includes two songs that I could not stop playing - “Longer” and “Heaven.”
24. Peter Bruntnell - Nos Da Comrade
An artist I have long admired and wonder why he isn’t more popular - he’s so consistently good!
25. Emitt Rhodes - Rainbow Ends
Emitt’s first full-length release since 1973, a strong effort that harkens back to his heyday. Many artists have been influenced by Paul McCartney but few have captured that essence so well.
26. Martin Green - Flit
A sure-footed blend of poetry and music, led by Martin Green, member of British folk trio, Lau. With guest vocalist Becky Unthank, who is one of my favorite singers in the world.
27. Dope Lemon - Honey Bones
The latest solo/side project by Angus Stone, from one of my favorite bands of the last decade - Angus & Julia Stone. I may feel as lackadaisical about this record as it appears he does. Not really recommended but I still like much of it, in some perverse, fan-ish way.
28. The I Don’t Cares
I dunno … to my ears, the first-or-second-take-at-the-most-approach just isn’t working for Paul. The vocals suffer the most … and I can’t help but think the songs that are good here could have been so much better if he’d worked on them harder. I long to hear him care again.
Reissues / Archival
The Beatles - Live At The Hollywood Bowl
The improvement evident in the restored/remixed/remastered sound is dramatic. Hearing a couple of the later, more sophisticated arrangements on songs like “Things We Said Today” and “Ticket To Ride” makes one ponder what it would have been like if the band had toured longer than they did. And, considering their inability to hear one another onstage, it’s remarkable how well they could still sing.
Big Star - Complete Third
The definitive collection of the Third album recordings. The John Fry rough mixes are the stars of the show for me. His studio/engineering/mixing prowess wows me here more than ever. I understand that this material was largely meant to be more adventurous in the writing and the production but I think Fry's choices in the mixes and the EQ make it more musical somehow. Maybe the songs themselves are so out there that it benefits them to be less far out in the mixing. As for unheard tracks, “Like St. Joan,” “Don't Worry Baby,” Alex singing Jody’s “For You” and the "new" demo of “I'm In Love With A Girl” took my breath away the most. Alex’s then-girlfriend, Lesa Aldridge, singing the Velvets’ (Mo Tucker’s) “After Hours” is pretty damn cool too.
The Mothers Of Invention - Meat Light - The Uncle Meat Project/Object Audio Documentary
An expanded 3-CD set of tracks from the sessions for arguably the best of the Mothers/Zappa albums. This record was a staple in my world in 1969. The reissue has the original vinyl sequence in beautiful, remastered form along with an alternate sequence that was planned for the film version plus lots of unreleased tracks. One of my personal favorite records of all-time, one that really fired my imagination when it was first released.
Ian Hunter - Stranded In Reality (box set)
A solo career retrospective - 28 CDs, 2 DVDs, 400+ tracks (many previously unreleased), a coffee-table book, a replica music magazine full of original reviews, ads, etc. and a signed lithograph. Exhaustively researched and annotated, providing undeniable evidence of Ian’s long and lasting artistic value.
Pure McCartney - Pure McCartney
A 4-CD retrospective set with sequencing NOT in chronological order, which is surprisingly fun and makes for some interesting juxtapositions.
McGough & McGear - self titled
Remastered reissue of the 1968 album by two members of the “comic poetry” group, the Scaffold, including the stereo and mono mixes. A wonderful, odd and extremely British mix of spoken word and songs. Featuring guest appearances by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Graham Nash, Dave Mason and Mike McGear’s big brother, Paul McCartney.
Live Shows (LA except where noted)
Ben Folds - Grammy Museum 2/18
Dion - Grammy Museum 2/24
Emitt Rhodes - Grammy Museum 2/25
Gaz Coombes - Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery 4/2
Luther Dickinson - The Mint 4/8
Last Shadow Puppets - Theater at The Ace Hotel 4/20
All Those Pretty Wrongs - The Echo 4/22
Jorma Kaukonen & Jack Casady - The Grammy Museum 4/24
Big Star Third - Alex Theater 4/26
Lily & Madelaine - Troubadour 5/10
Robert Ellis/Sara Watkins - Hotel Cafe 5/12
Broncho - Teragram Ballroom 6/4
Missy Higgins - Teragram Ballroom 6/6
Bob Dylan - Shrine Auditorium 6/16
The Jayhawks - The Neptune - Seattle 7/19
Replacements Tribute Concert - KEXP - Seattle 7/20
Ardent Records Anniversary Celebration - The Grammy Museum 8/17
Empire Of The Sun - Capitol Records 9/6
Kraftwerk - Hollywood Bowl 9/18
Catfish & The Bottlemen 9/22
Jack Shit - The Baked Potato 9/29
Steve Gunn - The Echo 9/30
Marty Stuart - The El Rey Theater 10/4
Tommy Stinson - Harvard & Stone 10/16
Eisley - The El Rey Theater 10/25
Leslie Stevens - The Bootleg Bar 10/26
gnash - The Roxy 11/1
John Cleese & Eric Idle - Fred Kavli Theater 11/9
Nic Armstrong - Hotel Cafe 11/10
Pere Ubu - The Echo 12/9
Lunch with Grace Slick, omfg!
In August Jennifer was invited to a luncheon with Grace Slick at her publisher’s office and I begged my way in. Sitting in a small conference room with one of my greatest heroes in life hit me even harder than I anticipated. It made me realize how important she was in my world, not only as a musician but as one of the first true iconoclasts I ever encountered. Full disclosure: she was also one of my first serious crushes. Grace first hit my radar when I was at the impressionable age of 13. Jefferson Airplane and the ubiquitous “Somebody To Love” took me by storm; first, hearing them on the radio in the spring of 1967, then seeing them headline a 4-band bill in June at the Minneapolis Convention Center (alongside The Electric Prunes, The Shadows Of Knight and Buffalo Springfield). The lunch gathering was casual and one-on-one conversation with Grace was easy and warm. She was everything I’d expected - whip-smart, hilarious and unfiltered. At one point, she said something damning about Trump, then paused and added, “Sorry if there are any Trump supporters present but … if there are, you’re fucking idiots.”
Replacements’ Trouble Boys book promo events
In July I went to Seattle to take part in what is best described as a Herculean promotional effort for the Replacements book Trouble Boys, organized by music man extraordinaire Kevin Cole and radio station KEXP. Author Bob Mehr and I were guests on Kevin’s Afternoon Show for FOUR HOURS (!) and had an absolute ball, talking about the band, playing songs by and related to the band. Bob read excerpts from the book. Then we moved over into the station’s enormous new performance space where local journalist Sean Nelson did a Q&A with Bob and I in front of an audience of Replacements fans. The evening was capped off with a Replacements tribute show featuring several terrific Seattle artists like STAG, Prom Queen, Sean Nelson, Ethan Cossette (Car Seat Headrest), Ian Moore, Joe Reineke (Alien Crime Syndicate/Meices), Mike Musburger (Thee Sgt. Major/Supersukers/Poises/Fastbacks) and Paul Hiraga (Downpilot). It was truly one of the best days of my life. Incredibly gratifying. I’ve never been thanked so much! And if that wasn’t enough, a couple of days later Bob and I traveled to Portland and did another promo event at one of my favorite places on earth - the enormous Powell’s Bookstore. Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus Five, REM, etc.) joined us for the discussion and, once again, it was a blast!
I have to get one last thing off my chest
It is to be expected that many people - hardcore music fans and civilians alike - are drawn to a new record when an artist passes away. And that happened with David Bowie’s Blackstar. Many hailing it as a return to form, one of the best of his career, etc. And of course beauty is in the ear of the beholder, all opinions are valid. But I submit that the real “return to form’ was actually Bowie’s previous album, The Next Day. As brilliant as Blackstar is, it’s important to hear it for what it is - a not fully realized record being made by an artist racing against time. It cannot compete with the completely focused and unabbreviated The Next Day, an album that, as Brit journalist/musician Andy Gill wrote, “not only reflects Bowie’s best work but stands alongside it in terms of quality.” And also, in my opinion, The Next Day is the best rock record of the 21st century so far.