Now that all of the year-end lists are in, I thought it would be good to take a moment to appreciate that, though the tide of music flows inevitably outward, part of the journey going down the stream is made all the more pleasurable by going back up it.
2016 may have been a brutal year world-wise and a fairly strong one musically, but each year brings with it the discovery of previously missed gems, the music that has been out for years just waiting for you to stumble upon it. This is the first time I’ve really thought about the best record discoveries I have made in the last twelve months, the albums that have had a huge impact on me or simply left me in awe. I may have slept on them for a while, but now that I’ve found them, I won’t be making that mistake again.
5. Taken – Carry Us Until There is Nothing Left
When it comes to hardcore music, one would be hard-pressed to name a band that I have never heard of before. Taken somehow slipped past my radar as I assumed they were Name Taken and just glossed right over them. When I shot Taken at Friends Fest, however, they made it clear that they were an entirely different beast altogether.
The short, impassioned set was met mostly by mystified, if pleasantly surprised, Bleeding Through fans that were, I think, expecting something a little more br00ta1 than the ferocious melodic-hardcore Taken delivers. I, on the other hand, was overjoyed. I don’t think I have heard melodic hardcore done better since I first discovered Hopesfall or Saints Never Surrender. Their record Carry Us Until There is Nothing Left deserves more recognition.
4. Down – Nola / Kyuss – Welcome to Sky Valley
I’ve heard about Down every once in awhile, and I was dimly aware of Kyuss in the farthest recesses of my brain, but I’ve never taken any time to sit with either band. Nola and Sky Valley, however different, are extraordinary records.
Nola manages to be punishing in its heaviness and is maybe the best heavy metal, as heavy metal, I have ever heard. It’s groovy, heavy, dirty, and incredibly satisfying. It’s like eating a big, bloody steak — daunting at first as it sits on the plate, but there’s a sadistic glee that comes along with digging into the slab.
Kyuss operates on another plane, however. Where Down’s brand of metal is grounded and earthly, Kyuss takes to the heavens, using long, drawn-out spaces and yawning melodies and grooves as open and desert-like as the album cover. Welcome to Sky Valley is a warming and, at times, challenging listen, but the inherent bluesy-ness gives it an instant appeal.
3. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
Chock it up to hearsay, but I have always assumed Bright Eyes to take up the same kind of space, if not more stereotypically, as Fall Out Boy by-way-of Elliot Smith. And while in some senses that’s not terribly far off, it also, somehow, couldn’t be farther.
FOB and Elliot Smith manage to inhabit both the best and worst of emotional music. Fall Out Boy took soaring pop-punk melodies and anthems of angst and glossed them over to a heightened, inhuman sheen. At this point, their music feels more like genetically enhanced fast food than something that was grown organically from the heart. They also are frequently lambasted for being “emo” (and emo in general is blasted for being itself) when emo, originally, was simply being authentic and upfront — “Sure, we’re emotional,” they said. “But aren’t all songs?”
Elliot Smith, on the other hand, used his songwriting to craft heartbreaking ballads about his depression and misanthropy. While hardly ridiculed for his mental illness and subsequent death by anyone with any kind of empathy, his songs definitely could be overly dreary and sometimes as melodramatic as “emo” is accused of being. His name is, however, used as a weapon by some of his fans to carve out what they see as “true” emotions while simultaneously ridiculing any other genre or band that deals with the same issues in a different way.
Bright Eyes’ most famous record may be emotional, and it may be largely acoustic, and it may even be somewhat pretentious, but honestly, who gives a flying fuck because it’s some of the best emotional Americana-esque folky-ish emo I have ever been delighted to hear. It’s been on weekly rotation.
2. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington – The Great Summit: The Master Takes
I’ve never really quite “gotten” jazz. It’s always been too angular and disjointed, too esoteric for me to really penetrate. It was like trying to grasp at sand — there was nothing really human to hold on to. The emotion of the music was lost to me, overpowered as it was by what seemed like too much theory and talent and not enough just sitting back and letting your emotions go. I’ve always been able to appreciate the medium for what it was — I just couldn’t enjoy it. Then I went to New Orleans for a week a couple months back.
Dixieland jazz is a horse of a different color. Something about the brass and clarinet emphasis over the more dissonant piano or sax numbers that I have associated with jazz for so long caused a real breakthrough. Plus real singing! Bluesy singing! Not just random sounds! I don’t know. New Orleans is a magical place and somewhere between the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, street musicians, and a brass band show, I found myself totally enchanted.
Coming back, a friend started introducing me to other jazz artists, and the floodgates were opened. From time to time in the last couple weeks, I’ve thrown on a Thelonious Monk or tried my luck at a John Coltrane or Miles Davis, but ultimately, it doesn’t get any better than Louis, which makes sense, given my first introduction to his craft was through his city. But while the collections of his stuff are absolutely sublime, it’s his collaboration with the incomparable Duke Ellington that steals my breath away. They just sound like they are having such fun.
1. Danzig – How the Gods Kill
It is just about blasphemy that it has taken me this long to FINALLY get around to hearing some Danzig records. I am acutely aware of his legacy and influence, of that of The Misfits, even of Samhain, but for whatever reason –most likely the crimson ghost’s omnipresence in the visual world — I have simply unconsciously resisted giving Danzig a chance. The Misfits, while undeniably masterful, just never appealed to me. Then, after a long conversation with a friend about H.R. Giger, I stumbled across How The Gods Kill and that cover was just too good to pass up.
From his first unholy wail, I was hooked. Suddenly, a whole legion of bands and references made a whole lot more sense, and I realized Danzig has been beating everyone at their own game for 30 years. Like a heavy metal Johnny Cash, there is something deeply and incredibly gratifying about simply listening to Danzig’s music, like he is imbuing you with the power to dethrone God himself.