Staff Favorites of 2016 - Recorded music
“Staff Favorites of 2016” lists The Day’s staff members’ favorite moments in the arts this year, from local exhibits and concerts to new releases on film, in music and print, and on television. Here, we share our favorite recorded music from 2016.
Inspired by the collective national mindset that resulted in “Brexit,” the atmospheric British band Marillion released this conceptual recording in the fall, and that its message and narratives eerily foretold what happened with America’s recent presidential election only adds to the anger and despair. At the same time, Marillion’s musical DNA is organically predisposed to beauty and majesty rather than discord or freneticism. Three extensive suites, “El Dorado,” “The Leavers” and “The New Kings,” are connected by three shorter pieces, and the overall melodic and narrative flow saturate your ears and an enveloping sense of time and space in oddly therapeutic fashion. One of Marillion’s tongue-in-cheek merch T-shirts reads, “Maybe the best band in the world.” Well, maybe it’s not tongue-in-cheek. Maybe they really are the best band in the world — and “F.E.A.R.” is a persuasive argument in support.
— Rick Koster
“Theme from a Perfect World” The Andy Timmons Band
If you know Andy Timmons — and I’m proud to be a pal — his gentle and down-to-earth demeanor is exactly the opposite of the stereotyped indulgent Rock Dude. These qualities saturate his music, too, which adds a very accessible component to music that might otherwise be shelved in the “guitar hero” bin alongside work by Joe Satriani, Steve Vai or Angel Vivaldi. Make no mistake: Timmons IS that great of a player. In fact, on this latest collection of 10 instrumental songs, Timmons and his equally amazing rhythm section — bassist Mike Daane and alternating drummers Rob Avsharian and Mike Marine — are effortlessly virtuosic. But the tunes are melodic in the finest compositional sense, and that the scope of Timmons’ structures from Utopia and Robert Fripp to the Beatles and Brian Wilson means the appeal ranges far and beyond the average shred-head. That the two most beautiful and elegaic songs here are in memory of beloved cats speaks worlds about Timmons and his emotional depth.
— Rick Koster
“American Band” Drive-By Truckers
This world-class Alabama roots band has always walked the tightrope of “Southern duality” with wisdom, empathy and open-minded passion, and the collective worldview and craft of songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley is the equivalent of Flannery O’Connor and James Dickey if they’d played in the Clash and lived in South Carolina. As the title suggests, though, “American Band” sees the Truckers broaden their focus from Dixie to the whole nation, and their rage about what’s happening is artfully and passionately expressed throughout. An interesting note: I heard some of these songs delivered on NPR’s “Tiny Desk” concert — and the switch in dynamics from brash electricity to spare acoustic instrumentation demonstrated that the songs can convey sorrow just as much as anger.
“The Infinity Room” 36
36 is the artistic identity assumed by electronic musician Dennis Huddleston — and it’s only my opinion that this might be the case because “Dennis Huddleston” sounds like the leader of a Cub Scout troop or perhaps the boyish and genial algebra teacher at a Midwestern middle school. In any case, “The Infinity Room” is an exercise in which Dennis consciously limited his tonal options and sound palette and then, within those parameters, set out to use each composition to inspire the next and so on. What he ends with, then, is a hypnotic, chiming, endlessly spiraling and always beautiful journey through 10 musical “rooms.” If you’ve enjoyed Tangerine Dream, Olafur Arnalds, Peter Chilvers, Erik Satie or the soundtracks of John Carpenter, you need to hear this.
— Rick Koster
“Penitentiary Chances” Boosie BadAzz and C-Murder
The older I get, the more formulaic modern music sounds. I don’t discount the “snore-worthy old guy” quality, but it IS true that mainstream pop, country and rap is incredibly formulaic. So there. Which is why this album is so refreshing to me. Both veterans of prison time in Angola, hip hoppers Boosie Badazz and C-Murder (still incarcerated after a murder conviction) are intimately familiar with the peculiarities of the criminal justice system. I don’t know enough of their respective histories to know how “guilty” they’ve been in terms of criminal behavior. But this album is so dark — with harsh, hoarse and melancholy vocal deliveries and brutally moody backing tracks that sound lifted from a horror movie — that their combination of indignation, regret and abject despair is as thought-provoking as it is musically compelling.
— Rick Koster
“So Many Things” Anne Sofie von Otter and Brooklyn Rider
I will confess that Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter is one of my favorite singers on the planet and the alt-classical hipsters Brooklyn Rider are my favorite string quartet these days. This CD of 13 tracks of songs by some of the best contemporary songwriters and composers — Rufus Wainwright, John Adams, Caroline Shaw, Björk, Elvis Costello — is a model for where classical music ought to be going. The arrangements are contrapuntal and evocative, swinging from Baroque gestures to cinematic sonic spikes, and Otter’s singing is as lush and knowing as ever — she is a true chameleon. For me the high points were Otter’s portrayal of Kitty’s cri de coeur “Am I Your Light?” from the Adams opera “Dr. Atomic,” and the wonderful, multi-colored string quartet arrangement of Björk’s “Cover Me.” Once they called this stuff “crossover,” but who is doing the crossing? Does anyone think that Björk is a pop star? The entire set is calmly atmospheric, and this CD will wear well through the years, I’m sure.
— Milton Moore
“Down to My Last Bad Habit”Vince Gill
After a five-year album hiatus, in which he seemed to perform duets with anyone who would ask, Gill is back, showcasing his mix of incredible vocals, lyrics and guitar playing. There’s not another “Go Rest High on That Mountain” or “When I Call Your Name,” but there are plenty of heartbreaking ballads, including “Reasons for the Tears I Cry.” Have you heard this on country radio? Of course not.
— Tim Cotter
“Pawn Shop” Brothers Osborne
Last year, Chris Stapleton took Nashville by storm and this year it’s brothers TJ and John. TJ even sounds a bit like Stapleton (with some Jamey Johnson and Trace Adkins thrown in). Add the guitar wizardry of brother John and you have a heck of a duo. Mega-hit “Stay a Little Longer” was this year’s best not-in-love song.
— Tim Cotter
“Blood on the Keys” James Leg
James Leg’s “Blood on the Keys” has the kind of enthusiasm that’s mostly disappeared from rock music these days. It’s just a shame my album of the year came out so far beyond its time; it could have swept the scene in 1970, evoking MC5 and Stooges but with preternatural shrewdness.
— Travis Johnson
“The Life of Pablo” Kanye West
On the pop side of things, Kanye West’s wildly overanalyzed “The Life of Pablo” was a treat. That such a simple yet masterful set of songs generated so much controversy upon its release is a testament to how great he really is, as much as we don’t want to admit it sometimes. It narrowly beats out David Bowie’s “Blackstar” for me, which had the year’s two best songs in “Blackstar” and “Lazarus,” but was dragged down a bit by some pedestrian cuts.
— Travis Johnson