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.

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:

Top 5 Albums of 2014

This year’s list requires an asterisk. Or two. I have not yet listened to the Gone Girl soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. If past experience with their soundtrack work is any indication, I’m likely to consider it the best album of 2014.

I’m not sure why I haven’t listened to it yet. I haven’t seen the movie (or read the book). But that didn’t stop me in the past. I only managed to sit through half of The Social Network and I never saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo either. And yet, I bought and thoroughly enjoyed both of those soundtracks.

Beyond that omission, the list this year also suffers from my general lack of enthusiasm for the music that came out this year. I bought far fewer albums than I have in most years over the past 15 years (ever since Kid A awakened me from the disinterest in what was happening in contemporary music that plagued me throughout the ’90s).

Nevertheless, here’s the list.

5. “Weird Al” Yankovic — Mandatory Fun
I was a huge “Weird Al” fan as a kid. I owned several of his parodies on 45, and had the full Dare to Be Stupid album on vinyl as well. But as an adult, I stopped paying attention except when songs like “All About the Pentiums” or “White and Nerdy” would blip into the collective geek consciousness. Al’s genius with this album was to release a video a day for 8 days around the release of the album. It really got my attention, and got his songs into my brain enough that I had to buy it. Songs like “Foil” and “Word Crimes” are pure “Weird Al” genius, but don’t write off his clever style parodies like the epic “Jackson Park Express.” I still feel a little weird putting Al on the list, but this album really was one of the best I heard this year.

4. Foo Fighters — Sonic Highways
This is a solid Foo Fighters album. I wasn’t really into them for their first 3 albums or so, but from In Your Honor onward, they’ve been my favorite rock band doing new music. In fact I sometimes think they’re the only commercially successful band still producing new, good music I would unambiguously assign to that genre. The band made a huge deal out of Sonic Highways, but to be honest… I think it’s probably their weakest album since I really got into listening to them. I do like it, but I’ll take Wasting Light over this any day.

3. Aphex Twin — Syro
I really dig the music Richard D. James produces. But I have to confess I haven’t gotten into much of it because I find most of his cover art so off-putting. Superficial and silly, but there it is. Syro features a simple green cover with his logo symbol though, so it doesn’t bother me… probably because I have never figured out what it’s supposed to represent.

2. Tycho — Awake
I’ve been a big Tycho fan since I first heard their previous album. I regret missing the chance to see them at First Avenue this year. I actually had tickets to the show but I wasn’t feeling well that night and blew it off. A big regret, to be sure, but it’s tempered by having this great album to listen to. Definitely my favorite of the year. At least, other than…

1. Room 34 — 5mi
Yeah, that’s me. It’s unbelievably conceited to rank my own album at the top of the list, but to be honest, this is just about the only album that I’ve really found compelling all year, and it’s the one I’m most proud of to date. I’ve probably listened to it hundreds of times by now.

The inspiration came in early July, when I was running in a 5-mile race. I had never run any significant distance without listening to music, but somehow I had arrived at the race that day without my earbuds, forcing me to listen to nothing but the sound of my own breathing and footsteps (and, to a lesser extent, those of the runners around me, but it was a small race, so I was alone for most of it).

The rhythmic counterpoint of my steps and breathing became embedded in my brain, and a couple of days later I sat down to compose a piece of music based on it, played at a tempo equal to my running pace, and built on a 1000-measure structure. At just over 43 minutes, the piece came out almost precisely as long as the time it took me to complete the race.

5mi is a single, uninterrupted piece of music consisting of 11 distinct musical sections. It was composed and recorded in its entirety in a single 4-hour session. The 11 track names are inspired by locations near the 5-mile race route, in my hometown of Austin, Minnesota.

The album is available on iTunes, Spotify, and other streaming/download services.

Side note: After the 5-mile race, I actually started to embrace the idea of running without headphones. At the end of October, I ran in my first ever half marathon. Just under 2 hours of running, with no music. I might even have to credit the lack of music with my good time. I found the chatter of the 9:10/mile pace runner so annoying that I sped up to get out of earshot from him, knocking my time down to a 9:06 pace and finishing the race in 1:59:05.

Dishonorable Mention: Yes — Heaven and Earth
This album most certainly is not in my top 5 for the year. But I still feel compelled to mention it here simply because it is so absolutely terrible. I have been a Yes fan for most of my life (ever since I first heard “Owner of a Lonely Heart” as a 9-year-old). Some of their music is my favorite music ever. I would put at least four of their albums in my “desert island selection” (The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Relayer). But they also have several mediocre albums (Tormato, Big Generator, Talk) and a few truly awful ones (Union, Open Your Eyes, Magnification).

The last album Yes produced that I thought was genuinely decent (if not actually good) was 1999’s The Ladder. In the past few years, the band has become a parody of itself, more Spinal Tap than Spinal Tap could ever have dreamed of being.

None of that prepared me for how awful Heaven and Earth is.

It took me months, and several attempts, before I could force myself to listen to the entire album, or even an entire song. Then I did it once and promptly deleted the album from my iTunes library. It is so bad, I want to forget that it even exists. I have never, ever found an album by any artist so absolutely appalling as this album. Although I have had only tepid enthusiasm for the albums I liked this year, Heaven and Earth definitely left the strongest impression on me. That’s worth noting in its own twisted way.