Like the previous few years, 2016 was an amazing year musically. In my personal life, I realized how few shows I went to, but I’ll chalk that up to a combination of Knoxville not bringing too many acts I sprang at the chance to see, not having an easily available car to go to see those acts in other cities, and my increasing age. I still have bands like Merchandise (maybe the best active rock band?) on my calendar from Nashville didn’t I didn’t make. Of course when bands even come to Nashville or Asheville it’s a treat. A solid 50-70% (completely baseless statistic) of artists I’d like to see don’t come any closer than Atlanta, and some don’t even bother visiting the Southeast. I see this trend in older European acts who break their backs to come play in the arts-unfriendly United States; venturing outside of New York, DC, LA, and maybe Chicago would lose money for 9 out or 10 Britpop acts (see: my Top 10 albums list). This, of course, doesn’t count music festivals, which are not for me (“me” being over 22 and preferring to see my music in intimate environments not surrounded by tens of thousands of the worst people in the world… and I’ve been to Coachella; don’t argue with me).
One of my favorite podcasts (which I’ve been, as with most podcasts, terrible at keeping up with) That Awful Sound often discusses the comments on YouTube videos of their artists in question. While I firmly believe that all comment sections should be destroyed, I do enjoy their reflections on these frequently-bitter shitticisms, namely the “music is bad today” set. Music is NOT bad today, not even arguably. Sure, if you’re 48 and listen to the local Top 40 station and no longer spend money on music, you have a pretty myopic view of pop music. But if you didn’t like the Top 40 station, you’d change the channel to something different and occasionally poke around on the internet for something new and interesting. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be new. These people who lament that “REAL” music doesn’t exist anymore are probably slow typists on account of their S, M, D, and H keys being worn down to nubs. They are not intelligent, and the internet has only made their ignorance shittier and louder.
You know why I’m willing to make these sweeping statements? Because I’m nobody special. I spend just as much time on Facebook every day (as much as I wish I didn’t) as anyone, and I have access to all the same garbage. My favorite albums and songs of the year aren’t authoritative; hell if I was better about keeping up with Top 40 I’d probably have found a superficial pop song as perfect as 2015’s “Want To Want Me” (whispers “Derulo”) to include in my list. But I didn’t, at least not without the help of Bandcamp and a handful of others. I’m a busy man, like literally everybody else.
One of 2016’s saving graces on the local front was Ashley Capps opening The Mill & Mine. It’s roughly the same size as the International but AC Entertainment is actively booking middle-of-the-road bands that young professionals will pay to see, rather than the 90’s buttrock nostalgia and EDM artists with names like TWRKMASTR. The International brought Aesop Rock this year, which was fantastic, but most of their shows still cater to the college crowd (which is fine) and the people whose lives symbolically ended in 1998. The Mill & Mine is a beautiful space with an impressive lineup of acts. The two shows I saw there this year were nothing to scream about, but that wasn’t really the fault of the venue. Lake Street Dive felt like “Hooray for Everything” if they had a residency at Barley’s… crowd-pleasing is a good thing, but too much pandering (not to mention rehearsed between-song banter) is just creepy. Saves the Day was…eh… Chris Conley, I love you, but people aren’t paying $28 to see you play songs off “Daybreak.” I really like the grapefruit album, but not with a blanket of reverb and feedback. Coheed & Cambria were also there that night and were surprisingly enjoyable, despite their live presence being 80% fancy lighting.
So, what were the best shows I saw this year? Two in particular leap to the forefront. Well, three. Okay, five if you include the two I saw on a whim in San Francisco in April (All Dogs w/ California at a small bar in Nob Hill, where I had great conversations with a pair of 90’s rock stars…well one actual rock star and one who should have been; and Gaz fucking Coombes at Slim’s. I actually stood in line to have my photo taken with him; I was very excited and he was very drunk). The first two I thought of were King Kong at the Pilot Light on November 12th, and Built to Spill at the Bijou Theater on June 15h. The third is Bella’s Bartok at Preservation Pub on October 19th.
I guess putting King Kong and Built to Spill on a similar pedestal shows my age, but who cares. They both came out of the same era, both are equally deserving of indie rock stardom, both have garnered all sorts of accolades from music nerds, and both feature disarmingly talented front-men who are pushing 50 and FUCKING DWEEBS.
I already kind of knew the dweeb part about Doug Martsch of Built to Spill; I saw him and his beard (much bushier back then) perform a show on tour with Camper Van Beethoven sometime in 2006. His band had more members at the time, but they got the same point across. What the Bijou show really let shine was his guitar playing. Martsch is notoriously demure about his status as a guitar god, of which he is one of the 90’s indie-rock generation’s greatest (Dean Ween and Graham Coxon may offer a challenge, if you think of one of the biggest rock groups of that era indie…Coxon’s solo stuff was more niche, though). Anyway, I shook Martsch’s hand after the show and thanked him for coming to Knoxville (like I do with every respectable musician who I know doesn’t need to come here), and I actually felt like I could have probably played the guitar for a few minutes immediately afterward, like he passed on some kind of schred-worthy pixie dust.
Ethan Buckler, on the other hand, I had never seen perform, and honestly I wasn’t entirely sure what he looked like before I got to the Pilot Light that night. I knew he had been in Slint as a young man, and I had heard enough of his King Kong singles to know he wasn’t much of a singer but he had a damned good creative streak. “Red Hot Lovin’” sounds like an alternate-reality version of ska that started in Atlantic City in the late 50’s rather than Jamaica. It’s indescribable nature is one of its myriad charms, and even if you could describe it, it couldn’t prepare the listener for the days it would be ringing out in their head (Sorry if you clicked that link before you read that warning).
Anyway, one of my general rules about bands I go to see (relatively) blindly is that if they don’t look like a band, they’re probably a pretty good band. And holy shit do King Kong (at least in their current iteration) look like dudes who have no business even being at a show. I’d kind of always assumed that Buckler was one of those cool, Louisville indie-rock dudes, but nope – massive nerd. This made me respect him even more. Similar to Doug Martsch, barely anything about him says “rock star.” At one point (maybe during King Kong’s self-titled song; I wasn’t sure of the title at the time), King Kong had a rhythm section breakdown where Buckler put his guitar down and just leaped all over the stage like a guy who played an Orangutan in some 1920’s movie but lost his suit. Also, they played “Bad Cat Blues,” which I had never heard before and may win my nascent “best song from another year that I heard this year for the first time” category. It’s good. I remembered that Raven Records had a copy of Funny Farm (1993), and I went to buy it the next day.
Bella’s Bartok are somewhat of an exception because they include a pair of brothers I ostensibly grew up with back in New England. Granted, I hadn’t seen them in 13 years prior to their set at Pres Pub. A confluence of BB members performed a series of acoustic alt-rock covers to warm up the crowd, which was mostly barflies and people loudly socializing in the back. Considering how global warming kept the roof decks open well into December, a lot of the people who would eventually be leaping all over the place to Bella’s Bartok were enjoying a drink two stories up. I caught up with Asher and Jesse, talked about the old times, and then thoroughly enjoyed the insanity of their gypsy-punk live show. You can tell how crafted and dedicated this band is, and I was proud to become a major booster of theirs later this year, especially as they started confronting Trumpfuckers Inc. who wound up at their shows (for some unfathomable reason, since Bella’s Bartok’s entire aesthetic is basically a Republican’s fever-nightmare). Anyway, support them and their music.
THE LISTS, WHICH YOU PROBABLY SKIPPED OVER MY WHOLE SPIEL ABOVE TO GET TO, IF YOU EVEN BOTHERED READING THIS FAR AT ALL.
Here are my top ten favorite albums of 2016, in rough order.
- Touche Amore – Stage Four
- LISTEN HERE. Whooo-weee this is a tough one to get through (especially if you have close personal contact with cancer), but it’s also the most rewarding. “Flowers and You” and “New Halloween” may be the best one-two punch any hardcore album has delivered since Lifetime nailed it with “Turnpike Gates” and “Young, Loud, and Scotty” 19 years ago. I did enjoy “Is Survived By…” quite a bit, but this is the full realization of TA’s powers. It’s heartfelt yet never sappy, cripplingly sad but never melodramatic. And Jeremy Bolm’s lyrics are witty as they are sincere. If you can’t take a guy yelling like his throat’s exploding, well then you’re missing out and you should try to have a more open mind in 2017. You have to wonder where they go from here, especially since Bolm may need that Schwartzenbach surgery soon.
- Suede – Night Thoughts
- LISTEN HERE. I think Bernard Butler’s goodwill spilled far enough into the 21st century that it may have upset people if I said that “Head Music” or “A New Morning” was Suede’s best work. But it’s a moot point, because both of those albums sucked. But honestly? Night Thoughts is probably Suede’s best album (really) and it has no reason to be this good, this long after Suede lightning-bolted. Fortunately, the band is far enough removed from Butler’s influence at this point that people may actually believe me. “Tightrope” actually provided some solace after Bowie’s death, knowing that someone was out there Bowieing just as well as Bowie Bowied for so long.
- Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
- I was curious about how Simpson’s major label debut would shake the tree of this eternal binary of “real country” versus “cold jeans/tight beer/mediocrity anthems.” It seems like the respectable country singers who aren’t frightened enough to wear the ‘Americana’ cloak have landed and set up their own veritable colony in the mainstream, and “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” is proof positive of this. This is the best album title of the year, the best album artwork of the year, and holy hell if Sturgill doesn’t USE that major-label money down to the last penny to make the best album he could at this point in his career.
- Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
- D-D-D-Danny Brown! I haven’t dug deep enough to figure out if he named this after Joy Division or after the novel that Joy Division named their album after, but either way we know what we’re in for. As pretentious as it may sound, my favorite thing about this album is it’s complete balance of unpredictability and cohesion. Full-album streams aren’t available anywhere I can find, but “Aint it Funny” is one of the album’s many kick-you-in-the-ass highlights. I feel slightly less cool knowing this is the Needle Drop’s #1 top album of the year, though. (Just kidding, I never feel cool at all).
- A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You for Your Service
- We all spent 2016 yelling “fuck you” to a year into our echo chambers. Q-Tip decided to shove a fucking potato into 2016’s exhaust pipe after it took Phife Dawg. This album couldn’t have come at a better time and couldn’t have been more needed. Their SNL appearance was the single greatest musical event of the year, to boot.
- Weezer – Weezer
- LISTEN HERE. The first time I heard this was in my friends’ living room in Long Beach after a long night of drinking and eating hush puppies at our favorite bar, my first time there in almost three years. The beginning of “California Kids” is as infectious as anything they’ve ever recorded and it made me feel like I was a teenager again, so that alone earns this album top-10 status.
- Woodwork – Ordinary Violence
- ECOUTEZ ICI. The thing about hardcore (or as the French call it ‘ardcyorgh’) is that because so much of it is by-the-numbers that when it’s done well, it reminds us just why those numbers still exist. I feel like most bands who play in this style record an entire album, send it off to the pressing plant, and then are like “oh shit! did we put any hooks in there? No? Well we’ll get ’em next time!” Woodwork are not one of those bands. They crush it here, and aren’t afraid to take deep breaths and pace themselves. Also, politics are good!
- Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing
- LISTEN HERE. Bandcamp’s Top-100 albums of 2016 countdown, while it reeked of favoritism (corporate accounts, click-counts etc), clued me into a lot of great records I missed this year. This, sitting at #100, should have probably been much higher. Another thing I realized this year was that every single time anyone’s hyped a new band as “the next Pavement,” I’ve never enjoyed that band (e.g. Car Seat Headrest, Ought). I may just be missing something, but I’ve never heard of “the next Pavement” with a female lead singer. Pavement are such an unquestioned piece of rock royalty (despite the inevitable cashgrab reunion tour in 2010…which was amazing) that rock fans often forget why exactly Pavement were so great. The songs were brilliant, yeah, but a lot of it was about what they weren’t: trying too hard, conceited, brash, etc. etc. Greta Klein deserves the Malkmus and Kannberg-Chain respect as much as any lanky white dude in flannel.
- Kali Phoenix – Voices
- LISTEN HERE. The UK has really been killing it in the 21st-century soul department of late, even white people from Scotland. That’s all I’ve got on this one. It’s good. It made me wonder how many soul albums are out there that I’m just plain sleeping on. I discovered Noname’s “Telefone” through twitter (I think), and that would easily have been on my top 15 or 20.
- Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
- LISTEN HERE. Sad/pissed-off Ian made Bazooka Tooth, so I can’t fault that version of him, but it was beginning to grow tiring in ways. Plus, happier/ approaching-middle-age Ian cranked out a quality listen this year while managing to get perpetually weirder and better. It was better than Skelethon, to be sure, and it has “Kirby” on it.
Plow United’s Three gets an honorable mention here, because there is no good reason why it shouldn’t. A few weak moments don’t detract from how the trio is still one of the best pop-punk bands in the world, two reunion albums in, two decades after their heydey. This is real life. Similar to Lifetime’s 2007 reunion (my frame of comparison for all well-executed punk reunions), they generate a few great songs that they may have been able to grind out during their Clinton-era heyday, and a few great songs (“Everything,” “Momma I’m Not Doing Well”) that sound like ‘years of life experience and maturity’ were an actual instrument used on the track.
HERE ARE MY TEN FAVORITE SONGS OF 2016
- PUP – “DVP”
- I liked The Dream is Over, but not as much as everyone was telling me to. But this song is good enough to cover for the band’s entire discography. It’s a super brief and punchy distillation of why everyone got into this band in the first place.
- Mitski – “Your Best American Girl”
- I’m holding this one at #2 since I discovered it too late to leapfrog it over PUP, but it came close. Best chorus of the century so far? Mitski is the fucking weirdo we need and deserve and I’m glad to discover her music.
- Aesop Rock – “Kirby”
- Between this and “Ramona” by Bella’s Bartok (2014), are we living in the golden age of songs about cats?
- G.L.O.S.S. – “Trans Day of Revenge”
- FUUUUUUUCKKKKK YEAHHHHHHHH THIS ONE’S FOR YOU, TRUMP’S AMERICA.
- Weezer – “Jacked Up”
- It feels SO GOOD to have Weezer back in my ‘best-of’ lists. Not that I’m really an expert on late-era Weezer (I did enjoy a few of the songs on Raditude a lot, though) but this is such a good left turn for Rivers and Co.
- Mean Jeans – “Trash Can”
- Contrarians (goddamnit I can’t wait for those well-actually fuckers to go the way of the Dodo… I mean, MRAs are hardly an improvement but I digress) will be quick to point out that all of Mean Jeans’ songs sound the same. The Ramones heard the same thing all the time and it didn’t phase them because THAT WAS THE FUCKING POINT. Tight New Dimension, while not as tight as On Mars, had plenty of great songs (that all sounded perfectly different from one another), this was the best one and had the year’s best lyric in “I’d rather be on fire than be with you.”
- Cullen Omori – “Cinnamon”
- I didn’t really get why this was on Sub Pop until I realized that Omori was in Smith Westerns. Then I remembered that Sub Pop put out that first Chixdiggit record, so I don’t know why I keep expecting Sub Pop albums to sound a certain way. Anyway, given how Omori is in his late 20’s now I think, this sounds exactly like the type of song he was conceived to. Imagine what Dennis Lyxzen had in mind when he was screaming “a naive secret for the New Romantics.”
- Against Me! – “Crash”
- This was a redeeming moment on the abject disappointment that was Shape Shift With Me. The song itself was pretty divisive, I guess, but I loved it. The guitar tones have Ocasek/Easton all over them, which has never hurt anybody.
- Jeff Rosenstock – “Festival Song”
- Rosenstock’s years of backbreaking labor for the DIY community (oh, and fundamentally altering the way we consume music almost to a Steve Jobs level) are finally paying dividends for Rosenstock, and he seems to not be changing much for the worse. “Worry” would definitely be in my Top 20 if I had time to expand the list, but “Festival Song” is a wonderful Rosenstockian tooth-kick to whatever else he’s singing iconoclastically about here.
- The 1975 – “Love Me”
- FONK. Prince may be gone, but bands will be ripping him off very constructively for eternity! This single was technically released in 2015 but the album was released in 2016, which is the only thing I give a shit about. I listened to an episode of Steven Hyden’s podcast where he talked about the 1975 with the person who wrote about them for Rolling Stone, and it was interesting. It’s vital in 2016 to have a rock band (even one with this poppy of a sheen) that truly appeals to teenage girls, considering how crucial it is to the health of popular music. I’m going to stop myself before I start going into Trigger’s thing about the monogenre.
My favorite song from another year that I heard for the first time in 2016 (seriously adopt this category for yourself; it’s so much fun) was either “Bad Cat Blues” by King Kong or (on a technicality) “Carnal Pleasure” by Big Huge. I found this through a big Facebook hole. It was released at the very end of 2015 (at least on Bandcamp) and I didn’t hear it until late this summer so I’m counting it here. It’s like someone put a John Waters movie in a blender, liquefied it, and made a syrup-heavy slushie out of it.
Oh, and also, as a bonus category of Band I Was Straight Unable to Shut the Fuck Up About for 2016, that firmly goes to Shudder to Think. Word on the street (“street” being Craig Wedren’s social media) is that they’re writing and recording new music for the first time since the 90’s. They did a couple of reunion jaunts but COME ON MAN WHERE WERE STU AND ADAM? It does kinda kill me that I had the chance to see STT (when it was really Craig, Nathan, and Friends) back in 08 but I wasn’t cool enough to recognize their goddamned brilliance. Anyway, listen to Shudder to Think. If you don’t like them immediately, give it time and you’ll be obsessed.
Here’s to more great music in 2017, and hopefully nothing horrible happens at all.