Dave’s Favorite Music of 2016

1. David Bowie – Blackstar
Favorite song: “Lazarus”

A few years ago during a trip to New Orleans, I talked with my old friend Neal – a musician, music journalist, and like me, a lifelong music lover – about the ongoing quest for The Next Record That Blows You Away. For hardcore music fans, it is as exhilarating as falling in love: you listen to record on repeat, lose yourself in it, become evangelical (“Hello ma’am, I’m here to talk to you about a record called Hourly Daily – have you heard it? Ma’am, please don’t shut the door, you really ought to…ma’am?”).

These moments get rarer as we get older, not because we’ve given up the quest, but because, after 40+ years of living for music, it is more difficult to find music that sounds fresh and that you haven’t heard many times before. 60+ years after the birth of R&R, there’s not much room left for innovation. I began my senior year of college in 1987, which included new releases by U2 (The Joshua Tree), R.E.M. (Document), Hüsker Dü (Warehouse: Songs and Stories), Replacements (Pleased To Meet Me), and Prince (Sign O’ The Times), among others. What can compete with that?

Still, the quest continues.

David Bowie’s The Next Day in 2013 was one of those records. His first new release in ten years blew me away, compelling me from a big fan to an obsessive one. When Blackstar was announced in late 2015, I put the release date of 1/8/16 on my calendar. I made it to Shake It Records when they opened the next morning and immediately fell in love with Blackstar, playing it six or seven times in a row. When Amy asked if we could listen to something else for a break, I queued up his entire catalog and spent the rest of the weekend going down the Bowie rabbit hole. It was glorious.

I came downstairs at 5:30am that Monday to start the coffee maker, turned on the news, and gasped out loud at the news that Bowie passed away late the night before. It was, of course, impossible to listen to Blackstar after that without the knowledge that it was his farewell from the stars (“look up here, I’m in heaven…”). Despite that, listening to Blackstar has never made me sad for two reasons. The first is obviously the music: bold and innovative, much of it is like nothing I’ve heard before. It’s the most successful marriage of rock and jazz ever attempted, including records by titans like Miles Davis, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell. I am still as thrilled by it as I was when bought it a year ago.

The second reason is that Blackstar’s release coincided perfectly with what was in my head at the time. Personally, I was thinking a lot about turning 50 in May and facing the reality that I probably have about twenty productive years left if I’m fortunate. What do I want to focus on, explore, spend my time with? I tightened my priorities more than ever before. Musically, I was trying to make sense of a flood of ideas that didn’t fit Pike 27 or my usual approach to songwriting. Mark Giuliana’s propulsive, explosive rhythms on Blackstar made me want to drum again; in June, I bought a drum kit from my friend Mike Tittel of New Sincerity Works and started practicing again, 26 years after I sold my last kit. A new band is in the works. These days, few things make me as happy as drumming.

You don’t have to experience this sort of epiphany to love Blackstar – there’s a reason why it’s in nearly every top-ten list out there. But for me, the timing of Blackstar elevated it from a fantastic record to a singular, life-changing one. David Bowie is a northern star, Blackstar is rocket fuel.

2. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Favorite song: “Burn The Witch”

Yet another reason I loved Blackstar is that I’ve slowly been getting bored with guitar rock, save for the records that are in my canon of all-time favorites. I’ve spent much of the year looking for new things to listen to, and A Moon Shaped Pool fit the bill perfectly. It also led me revisit the Radiohead catalog and finally fall in love with Kid A 16 years after its release. (I never claimed to be a trend-setter.)

3. PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
Favorite song: “The Wheel”

The lyrics are mostly too heavy-handed, but the music and melodies are wonderful, with a more creative blend than almost anything else released this year.

4. Norah Jones – Day Breaks
Favorite song: “Flipside” (live with Blade on drums). While you’re at it, check out “Compared To What”, which Norah credits for inspiring this song.

This one caught me by surprise. I’ve never paid much attention to her work, finding it a little too Starbucksy for my tastes. But I came across the song “Flipside” while searching for recent records that the brilliant Brian Blade (another primary inspiration to drum again) played on and dug it. Tasteful songwriting supported by Blade, Wayne Shorter, and Lonnie Smith makes for a wonderful record.

5. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Favorite song: “American Valhalla”

Iggy teams up with Josh Homme to make one of his best records ever. I love that he admits that “American Valhalla” was inspired in part by Bugs Bunny singing, “Kill the wabbit.”

6. Mark Brasington — New Zealand
Favorite song: “You Can Dance”

Mark is a dear friend and one of the most underrated musicians in the Cincinnati scene. But that’s not why I love this record – rather, it’s for the creative songwriting, soulful vox, and Mark’s ability to blend a lifetime of influences into something unique and compelling. That he recorded, produced, and mixed New Zealand mostly on his own in his home studio makes it all the more impressive.

7. Donny McCaslin – Beyond Now
Favorite song: “Shake Loose”

And just like that, we’re back to Bowie – Donny McCaslin and his band were Bowie’s collaborators on Blackstar. Going down the rabbit hole meant also checking out everything they had done and digging it as well. McCaslin’s saxophone playing blends mainstream melodies (he followed Michael Brecker in the fusion band Steps Ahead) with brilliant out-there bop runs, while his bandmates draw as much from electronica as they do jazz. Amy and I had the good fortune to see them at NYC’s legendary Village Vanguard and it was truly one of the best concerts we’ve ever seen. Seeing the band that played on a life-changing record in a historic venue roughly the size of the recording studio in which they made Blackstar was overwhelming. We didn’t listen to music for three days afterwards.

8. Lazarus (Original Cast Recording)
Favorite soundtrack song: Sophia Anne Caruso (age 15): “Life On Mars”
Favorite Blackstar outtake: “Killing A Little Time” (via Spotify)

Back to Bowie, part II. This is a bit of a cheat, I suppose, as it is filled with Bowie songs sung by actors. But while I generally don’t like Bowie covers, these are especially good – perhaps because Bowie played a major role in writing and producing the play. The record also contains the final three songs from the Blackstar sessions, likely the last new music from Bowie that we’ll ever hear; they’re equally as great as the songs on Blackstar.

9. The Comet Is Coming — Channel the Spirits
Favorite song: “Space Carnival”

I started reading The Guardian’s music coverage regularly this year. The British music press has always been more interesting and intelligent than ours, and The Guardian is a great source for new acts and overlooked older records. A Guardian article described The Comet is coming as “the sons of Sun Ra…whipping up a fusion of jazz, Afrobeat and electronica in an improvisational, intergalactic mash-up.” I’m in.

10. Glen Hansard — A Season On The Line (EP)
Favorite song: “Way Back In The Way Back When”

I usually don’t list EPs in my top ten, but this one includes two of my favorite songs of the year. Didn’t He Ramble was my favorite record of 2015 – had the title track (which in on this EP and not the record) and “Way Back In The Way Back When” been substituted for two of his sleepier songs, it might’ve been an all-time great. Hansard and his band did a great show at the Taft in November 2015 and called Napoleon Maddox on stage to beatbox on “Way Back,” a very cool moment.

Honorable mention:

  • Robert Glasper – Everything’s Beautiful
  • Sorg & Napoleon Maddox – Soon
  • Tortoise – The Catastrophist
  • The Tragically Hip – Man Machine Poem
  • Plastic Ants – Imperial Phase
  • The Fauntleroys – Ivan Julian Benefit Singles

Disappointing:

  • Alejandro Escovedo – Burn Something Beautiful

Got too late in the year to spend enough time with, but digging so far:

  • JD Allen – Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues
  • A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
  • Andrew Cyrille Quartet – The Declaration of Musical Independence
  • The Bad Plus – It’s Hard
  • Against Me! – Shape Shift With Me
  • Sting – 57TH & 9TH (go ahead and mock me, but when you grow up on The Police, it’s fun to hear Sting rock again)
  • Copper – The Devil You Know

A great year of shows (in chronological order):

  • Grant Lee Phillips, Ludlow Garage – 02.13
  • Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, KFC Yum Center (Louisville) – 02.21
  • IsWhat with JD Allen, Fireside Pizza – 06.04
  • Mike Wade & The Nasty Nati Brass Band, The 404 – 06.25
  • The National, Red Rocks (Morrison, CO) – 07.31
  • The Tragically Hip’s final show (Kingston, Ontario via live stream) – 08.20
  • Kamasi Washington, Bob Mould, Car Seat Headrest, and The Budos Band at MidPoint Music
    Festival – 09.24
  • Flying Underground, MOTR – 09.29
  • Chick Corea (with Brian Blade and Eddie Gomez), Xavier University – 10.08
  • Bruce Menefield, Kennedy Heights Arts Center – 10.29
  • Branford Marsalis with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Taft Theater – 11.25
  • Donny McCaslin, Village Vanguard (NYC) – 12.02
  • The Bad Plus with JD Allen Trio, Xavier University – 12.09
  • Steve Schmidt’s Christmas Extravaganza with Dixie Karas, The Comet – 12.16

Favorite gig

New Sincerity Works CD release party with Pike 27 and The Ready Stance, Woodward Theater – 02.26

Most plays by artist (via Last.FM):

  1. David Bowie – 2,269
  2. U2 – 439
  3. The Police – 422
  4. Morphine – 359
  5. Chris Whitley – 339
  6. Elvis Costello – 318
  7. Radiohead – 286
  8. Sting – 252
  9. Talking Heads – 249
  10. Prince – 248
  11. E.M. – 225
  12. Miles Davis – 219
  13. John Coltrane – 218
  14. Roxy Music – 218
  15. Latin Playboys – 214
  16. Donny McCaslin – 208
  17. Brian Eno – 199
  18. Los Lobos – 198
  19. Van Morrison – 177
  20. Pell Mell – 175
  21. Tom Waits – 173
  22. Thievery Corporation – 170
  23. Tortoise – 156
  24. Dave Douglas – 155
  25. The Clash – 154

Most plays by album (via Last.FM):

  1. David Bowie – Blackstar – 515
  2. David Bowie – The Next Day – 299
  3. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool – 154
  4. The Police – Certifiable (Live In Buenos Aires) – 144
  5. Donny McCaslin – Fast Future – 141
  6. David Bowie – Outside – 138
    Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost – 138
  7. PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project – 134
  8. Radiohead – Kid A – 129
  9. Latin Playboys – Dose – 121
  10. Morphine – The Night – 117
  11. The Comet Is Coming – Channel The Spirits – 110
    Norah Jones – Day Breaks – 110
    David Bowie – Reality – 110
  12. David Bowie – A Reality Tour – 106
  13. Van Morrison – Astral Weeks – 104
  14. John Coltrane – Ballads – 102
  15. Black Dub (s/t) – 101
    David Bowie – Heathen – 101
  16. David Bowie – Lodger – 99
  17. Tony Allen – Film of Life – 98
  18. Sting – 57th & 9th – 93
    Latin Playboys – Latin Playboys – 93
    Chris Whitley – Rocket House – 93
  19. Thievery Corporation – Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi – 92
  20. Chris Whitley – Soft Dangerous Shores – 91

* Favorite Music of 2015