Top 5 Albums of 2016

As I noted earlier when I posted the contenders for this list, 2016 is a year I’d just as soon forget. And I suspect it’s possible this year and the next three (or seven, or the rest of my natural life) may also fall into that category. In other words, I’m not extremely excited about dwelling on any details of 2016, even my favorite music from the year.

But it’s my tradition to produce these lists. And so, I present my ranked top 5 albums for 2016, this time without commentary, which I may or may not add at a future date when I am less demoralized by the world we’re living in.

5. King Crimson • Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind
4. David Bowie • Blackstar
3. Radiohead • A Moon Shaped Pool
2. Solange • A Seat at the Table
1. Tycho • Epoch

Top 5 Albums of 2016: The Contenders

Yes, it’s time for this annual ritual.

While in most ways 2016 is a year I would gladly forget, it did produce some good music… amongst the deaths of countless legendary musicians, from David Bowie in January to Greg Lake in December and many more in between, including, of course, Prince.

So, yes, it was a tragic, awful, embarrassing and far too long year. But it sounded pretty good. Here are the new albums and EPs I purchased in 2016, my contenders for the top 5 list which will be coming next week. Maybe. But as usual, I’m jumping ahead and putting the likely winners in bold.

AZIZA • AZIZA
Brian Eno • The Ship
Com Truise • Silicon Tare [EP]
David Bowie • Blackstar
Field Music • Commontime
King Crimson • Live in Toronto
King Crimson • Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind
Monolake • C G and G M O [EPs]
New Sound Underground • Push
Radiohead • A Moon Shaped Pool
Room 34 • Elements (yes, it’s me)
Room 34 • Pocketwerks [EP] (yes, also me)
Solange • A Seat at the Table
Steven Wilson • 4 1/2 [EP]
The Bad Plus • It’s Hard
The Darcys • Centerfold
Tortoise • The Catastrophist
Tycho • Epoch
Umphrey’s McGee • ZONKEY

Honorable mention goes to Kamasi Washington for his outstanding triple album, appropriately titled The Epic, which was released in 2015 but I didn’t get into until this year. It would’ve been on last year’s list. Same goes for Khruangbin and their album The Universe Smiles Upon You.

Some thoughts on 5 of my favorite Prince songs

Confession: I was never that big of a Prince fan at his peak of popularity in the ‘80s. I watched MTV incessantly, so I had plenty of exposure to most of his big hits. But I was a repressed small-town midwestern Protestant white kid. I thought it was cool when I learned he was from Minneapolis, but I didn’t see that connection as an opportunity to liberate myself from my fear of everything; I was still freaked out by his uninhibited, guiltless sexuality. That’s probably the biggest reason I didn’t pay very much attention to him, if I’m honest with myself about who I was as a 10-year-old.

But even though I didn’t consider myself a fan, and never owned any of his music until I was much (much) older, I still heard his music all the time. Because once MTV realized it was not only OK but necessary for them to play black artists, Prince was on there a lot. Videos like “1999” and “When Doves Cry” are burned into my memory. And honestly, even if I was a little sheepish about it, I liked them. As time went on, my appreciation grew. And so, as my small tribute to the Artist whose music touched so many people, here’s my list of 5 Prince songs. Not necessarily my “top 5” Prince songs, but 5 that have made a big impression on me, in the order that they did.

“1999” from 1999 (1982)

This song was my introduction to Prince. It was probably 1983 when I first saw it, so I would have been 9. I was fascinated by this song and the video. As a kid, I was always interested in the future. I wanted to get there, fast, whether it was a paradise or (as this song suggested) something more ominous. I’ve never paid as much attention to lyrics as to music, but the lyrics of this song definitely got my attention even back then. It was my first exposure to the idea of an apocalypse. And it made a huge impression on me that Prince would sing about confidently, defiantly celebrating in the face of doom. The other thing that impressed me about the video was that it showed Prince’s band performing, and he had women in the band. The music industry is still far too male-dominated today, but back then I didn’t even think to question things like that. So to see a band with both men and women, playing music together, struck me as something unique.

“When Doves Cry” from Purple Rain (1984)

Whoa. This video. The Rorschach-like mirror image effect had me transfixed from the first moment I saw it, but what really struck me was the sound of this song. It was sparse and futuristic and weird. I’d never heard anything like it, and probably still haven’t. As a kid, this was definitely my favorite Prince song. And it was made even better for me as a nerdy college student in the early ‘90s when it was referenced in a Simpsons episode where Milhouse meets his Shelbyville doppelganger.

[Much time passes…]

“Let’s Work” from Controversy (1981)

I spent most of my adult life not really thinking all that much about Prince. As I became more of an accomplished musician myself, my appreciation of his immense skills grew considerably, but I still was not really that engaged with his music. Then, one day in 2010 I was listening to The Current on the radio, and this incredibly funky song came on. I wasn’t really familiar with any of Prince’s pre-1999 work, so I had no idea what it was but I thought, “Oh, that sounds like Prince. I wonder if this is something new.” (Yeah, I’m not proud of that… but I do think it shows how we’ve come full circle that the dry, immediate sound of Prince’s early ‘80s recordings sounds contemporary again today.) I fired up Soundhound on my iPhone to identify the track, and before the song had even finished playing, I’d purchased and downloaded the entire Controversy album. Thus began my exploration of Prince’s early work. I bought all of his first four albums and listened to them — especially Dirty Mind and Controversy — incessantly for the next several weeks. Finally, at the age of 36, I really “got it”. Prince was a visionary genius, virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, and all-around legend. And he was from Minneapolis and stayed here.

“Uptown” from Dirty Mind (1980)

As I delved into the early work of Prince following my “Let’s Work” epiphany, I realized that Dirty Mind was really the album that defined Prince, the Minneapolis sound, 1980s pop music, everything. “Uptown” quickly became one of my favorite tracks on the album. I loved the upbeat funk groove, and the fact that it was a song about a neighborhood I used to live in. In 2011 I decided to record an album as a tribute to Minneapolis, the city where I was born and have spent most of my adult life. I had to include a song about Uptown, and I took inspiration from this Prince track.

“When You Were Mine” from Dirty Mind (1980)

The more I’ve listened to Dirty Mind (which has become my favorite Prince album), the more I’ve grown to love this song. It’s really kind of a weird song. It’s very poppy, with catchy hooks, but it is driven by strummed chords on an electric bass. And the lyrics seem, at first, like a typical pop song about a lost love, but as you listen closely you realize there’s a bizarre undercurrent to the story they tell that can only come from Prince.

I never was the kind to make a fuss
When he was there
Sleeping in between the two of us

Wait, what?

I figured my appreciation of this song was a bit unusual; it wasn’t a single, it was from before he really hit big. But in the days following his death, I discovered on Twitter that a lot of his fans cite it as their favorite Prince song. To me, it kind of symbolizes what Prince was all about: showing us that we’re all a little weird, that’s OK, and we’re not alone.

Covering Kraftwerk: the process (part 2)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the first steps in my process of recording an EP of Kraftwerk covers using solely the Pocket Operator series of micro synthesizers.

This weekend I returned to the project. I am not yet recording anything with the Pocket Operators themselves, but I am continuing the process of recording rough versions of these covers using software instruments in Logic Pro X. There are three reasons behind doing this:

1. Learning the basic structure of each instrumental part in the songs.

2. Building my overall arrangement of each piece, so I have a framework to work from as I record the Pocket Operator parts.

3. Determining which keys to transpose the songs into (since the Pocket Operators only have a 2-octave diatonic scale and can’t play chromatic notes), and having recorded versions of the parts in the new key to work from on the Pocket Operators.

As of today I have the rough mixes from Logic Pro X of all 4 tracks, so my next step is to actually get the Pocket Operators going and start recording the real parts.

The links below are rough MP3 versions of these Logic Pro X arrangements. None of the sounds you hear will be on the final versions; these are simply guide tracks for me to use in recording the real parts. Also, there are a few “open” sections in the middle of the songs (especially “Ruckzuck” and “Tour de France”) where I’ve left room for additional improvisations or manipulations.

I did not try to perfectly reproduce every part, or exactly follow the structure of each song. These are my interpretations and I’ve taken some liberties — especially with “Ruckzuck”, since I’ve never been a huge fan of the aimless noodling of the improv section in it, nor of its ever-increasing tempo.

1. Ruckzuck

2. The Man-Machine

3. Pocket Calculator

4. Tour de France, Étape 1



I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to try to record any vocals. But I think if there’s anyone whose singing I can handle imitating, it’s Ralf Hütter’s.

Top 5 Albums of 2015: The Contenders

Yes… it’s that time again. Time for me to reveal how limited my (financial, at least) exposure to this year’s new music is by publishing my list of the contenders in my top albums of year list.

It has felt like this year, more than most, I have really not paid much attention to what’s going on in the world of current music. My biggest musical obsession of the year has been listening to and collecting vinyl, even. How out of touch!

Anyway… here are the albums and EPs released in 2015 that I have purchased, and that are therefore contenders for this year’s list.

Adele • 25
Ariel Pocock • Touchstone
The Bird and the Bee • Recreational Love
Bjork • Vulnicura
Joe Satriani • Shockwave Supernova
King Crimson • Live at The Orpheum (Los Angeles 2014)
Magma • Slag tanz
Maria Schneider • The Thompson Fields
Mark Ronson • Uptown Special
Monolake • Icarus Alto and D E C (EPs)
Room 34 • Half Life (yeah, that’s me)
Steven Wilson • Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Sufjan Stevens • Carrie & Lowell
The Decemberists • What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Toro Y Moi • What For?

Seriously, that’s it? Apparently. And what’s even more ludicrous, there are at least three albums in the list I haven’t listened to at all (Bjork, Magma, Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists), and a couple more that I’ve only listened to once or twice (Adele, Ariel Pocock, Maria Schneider, Mark Ronson). With the Adele album I have an excuse — it’s only been out for 5 days. And Mark Ronson… well, I’ve only listened to the full album twice, I believe (back to back on the day I got it), but I’ve had second-hand exposure to “Uptown Funk” on an almost daily basis since early summer.

As usual I’ve highlighted in bold the five most likely to make the final, sad list.

Update, January 12, 2016: Well, 2015 came and went and I never actually created my final “top 5” list. At this point I don’t think I will bother, because: a) I’m not very enthusiastic about this list; b) no one reads this stuff anyway; and c) 2016 has already obliterated 2015 musically: