Best Albums of the Year 2016

Unfortunately 2016 will likely be remembered as the year the music died. Bowie and Prince were the headliners, but it seemed like every other week another famous musician was transitioning to the great gig in the sky. Thankfully, the reason we care about these people will never go away: the music. We may have lost a lot this year, but we were also blessed with a great new batch of albums to help us get through this thing called life.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

deliriumThe Claypool Lennon Delirium – The Monolith of Phobos
Winning combination features Les Claypool of Primus teaming up with Sean Lennon, whose father John Lennon was once in a band called the Beatles. Most often described as “psychedelic rock” this album is so much catchier than that. Sure, it sometimes provides a glimpse of what it might have sounded like if John Lennon replaced Syd Barrett in early Pink Floyd… or if a time machine allowed Flea to play bass with the Beatles. There’s even a track about Bubbles the chimp, Michael Jackson’s old primate friend. Just a lot going on here. On this addictive set of tunes the younger Lennon certainly reaffirms his own chops as a singer and songwriter and provides the perfect soundscape compliments to Claypool’s always busy bass lines. And while Claypool’s lyrical and vocal quirks can keep his Primus albums out of heavy rotation, the smaller doses found here serve to keep an otherwise heavy affair light on its feet. Monolith has proven to be one of those rare albums that’s instantly likeable on first listen and also a grower that keeps you coming back again and again.

RUNNER-UP ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

de-latribe

A Tribe Called Quest – Thank You 4 Your Service, We Got it From Here
De La Soul – …And the Anonymous Nobody
It’s really incredible to be sitting here at the end of 2016 with two of the best albums of the year coming from Tribe and De La. Yea that was the norm in 91, but 91 was a quarter century ago! And this isn’t a sympathy vote or career achievement award. These two albums are both expertly crafted… just straight-up bangers, instant classics. It’s a triumphant comeback not only for the groups themselves, but also for hip-hop Albums (with a capital A) as cohesive works of art.

BEST OF THE REST

drive-by-truckers-american-band-album-cover-artDrive-By Truckers – American Band
Easily the best Springsteen album in decades. But seriously folks, no one does true Americana rock quite like the DBT’s as far as depth of writing meets true grit. Grappling with what it means to be Southern in America has long been the Truckers lane, but they never fall asleep at the wheel. They continue to ask tough questions and find some relief in the screech of guitars and the fine art of storytelling.
bowie-blackstar-vice

David Bowie – Blackstar
This awful year started with this beauty of an album, followed a few days later by the departure of Bowie from planet earth. I wrote about it then, and it’s still one of the best albums of the year now.

radiohead-moonshapeRadiohead – Moon Shaped Pool
Most Radiohead songs sound equally adept at sound tracking either a desperate escape scene or the mundane existence of laundry folding. And that seems to hold true here. I’d like a few more rockers, but I’m not shocked or disappointed to find a new Radiohead album is a mostly mellow affair. That said, “Ful Stop” is certainly a classic “this is what Radiohead sounds like” song.

anderson-paakAnderson .Paak – Malibu
This is one of those great summer albums, as its title and cover suggest. Perfect for the beach or blasting on road trips. Just a funky stew of a variety of styles masterfully pulled off by this mega-talented dude who sounds like a bridge between Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars.

jackie
Jackie & the Treehorns – RU4REAL?

Otherworldly guitar rock effort proves that Jackie mastermind Steve Rubin is in fact, if you’ll forgive the obvious pun, for real. Not just as a guitarist but also as a songwriter and producer. Don’t just take my word for it, go download the album.


margo-price-midwest-farmers-daughter-562x560Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

OK this one might be a little too twangy for you but it is some damn good authentic country music with SOUL, not that fake cowboy popstar contemporary crap they serve up at awards shows and before football games. This is righteous and hearty comfort food music, direct descendant of 1970s Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.


raggaStephen Marley – Revelation Pt. II: Fruit of Life

I think Stephen Marley is one of the best producers working today. The variety of sounds and the different types of tracks he can create is seemingly limitless. And among the numerous and talented Marley offspring, it is Stephen’s singing that has always sounded the most like Bob’s voice. Fruit of Life finds him working reggae and dancehall magic where it meets the road to hip-hop, collaborating with Rakim, Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, and even Wyclef Jean. Brother Damian ‘Jr Gong’ Marley is involved… unfortunately so is Pitbull on the inevitably cheesy filler track “When She Dances.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
The Avett Brothers – True Sadness
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Rich Robinson – Flux
Ras Kass – Intellectual Property
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Jack White – Acoustic Collection

DECEMBER’S CHILDREN
These are the albums that came just came out in the final month of the year… I named this section after an old Rolling Stones album called December’s Children. My gut feel is they are good enough to be on the list of best albums of 2016, but sometimes we just fall in love with the shiny new things.

The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
The Stones putting out an album of old blues covers isn’t exactly shiny or “new,” and it might seem like the least exciting thing in the world, but Mick Jagger’s vocal and harmonica performance is worthy of the song selection, while the raw sound of the… seasoned band is a perfect compliment.

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
So I’m not like a pop culture junkie and I don’t really watch much television that doesn’t involve football or animation… so I never realized “that guy Donald Glover from that TV show Atlanta” was also the rapper Childish Gambino. Same guy. Anyway, I’d seen a previous CG album on a lot of best of the year lists in 2013 but I never bothered to listen to him because for some reason I thought “Childish Gambino” was a really stupid stage name. I put it on ignore along with any rap artist with a dollar $ign in their name. But THEN amidst the release of his new album, I read that he got that nickname from putting “Donald Glover” into an online WuTang Name Generator. And then I listened to the album, it’s all funk and singing with no rapping… and it’s really good and weird and cool and other lazy words we fall back on to describe the indescribable. Sounds like D’Angelo mixed with Anderson .Paak… if George Clinton was the bartender.

Neil Young – Peace Trail
Guy is still putting out solid new albums in his 70s. He’s still finding new sounds and telling new stories but also tackling many of the same concerns he’s always had. This time around he’s anchored by a sparse acoustic band anchored by veteran session drummer Jim Keltner and a solid batch of songs that capture that “classic Neil” sound without sounding stale. Young admits to being out of touch with the world where everyone’s staring at their phones, but then also mentions buying a robot on Amazon.com. Dude is fuckin nuts but he’s still bringing the goods for our ears.

December 99th – Dec.99th
The Artist Formerly Known as Mos Def is now Yasiin Bey and Dec.99th is a collaboration with producer Ferrari Sheppard. Another “weird/cool” album here that refuses to fit neatly into a category (though I did see a headline calling it “alt.hip-hop,” whatever that is). Chilled grooves meet spooky spoken word style.

Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two
The final Prince album was technically issued in December of 2015… hence its inclusion here as a “December” album since it was mostly received and enjoyed in 2016. The album opens with “Baltimore,” featuring the refrain “If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace.” Five months later Prince was dead. This album certainly stands up among his best 2nd-tier non-legendary classic works, and is a good cross section of the countless things he did so well. I’m still so sad he’s gone, but can’t say the same thing about the year 2016.

THE FULL LIST

For all the people who don’t want to read long blogposts and just srolled down to the bottom to see my list of the best albums of 2016, here it is:

The Claypool Lennon Delirium – The Monolith of Phobos
A Tribe Called Quest – Thank You 4 Your Service, We Got it From Here
De La Soul – …And the Anonymous Nobody
David Bowie – Blackstar
Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Radiohead – Moon Shaped Pool
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Jackie & the Treehorns – RU4REAL?
Margo Price – Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter
Stephen Marley – Revelation Pt. II: Fruit of Life
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
The Avett Brothers – True Sadness
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Rich Robinson – Flux
Ras Kass – Intellectual Property
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Jack White – Acoustic Collection
The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
Neil Young – Peace Trail
December 99th – Dec.99th
Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two

Top 10 Super Bowl Halftime Shows

Ranking the best Super Bowl halftime shows is a subjective and predictable (and pointless) exercise. But let’s do it anyway. Just as the Super Bowl game on the field has changed over the years and gotten bigger (and sometimes better), so too has the halftime show.

In the early days, when the league and game itself were not as big as they are today, the halftime shows were simple marching-band extensions of regular football games. As the years passed, they added occasional singers like Ella Fitzgerald and such pop celebrities as Carol Channing (twice). The Super Bowl Halftime Show as we know it today was not quite a “thing” yet.

As late as the 1980s, it was still just marching bands and Up With People performing salutes to random themes. (According to one of the great first lines on all of Wikipedia, “Up with People is an education organization whose stated mission is to bridge cultural barriers and create global understanding through service and a musical show.”) One year it was a “Salute to the Stars of the Silver Screen.” Just three years later, the theme was “Salute to the 100th Anniversary of Hollywood” (with George Burns, Mickey Rooney, and Disney characters). Other years they would salute the big-band era and “the 1960s and Motown.” In fact, they would even haphazardly combine tributes, as if some board-room decision had ended in a tie:  the 1990 theme was “Salute to New Orleans and the 40th Anniversary of Peanuts.”

Then Michael Jackson and, 11 years later, Janet Jackson changed how we view the Super Bowl halftime show.

10.) JANET JACKSON (w/ JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE)
SB XXXVIII – Feb 1, 2004 – Reliant Stadium (Houston, TX)
Unfortunately, nothing written about Super Bowl halftime shows is complete without mentioning perhaps the most famous, or infamous, halftime show. Sadly its pop-culture significance will keep it on lists like this forever. Oh, you don’t remember this one? At the end of the performance, Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of Janet’s, uh, wardrobe and revealed most of her bare breast. This was called “nipplegate” even though Miss Jackson made sure her nipple was covered. She showed about the same amount of her body as an average beer commercial by an Official NFL Beer Sponsor. But it was such an outrage to see that for 2 seconds on live TV that all the news and media outlets spent at least a week editorializing on just how awful and classless it was… all while showing a still photo of said exposed breast. This led to several years of only aging male classic rockers performing at the Super Bowl.

9.) DIANA ROSS
SB XXX – Jan 28, 1996 – Sun Devil Stadium (Tempe, AZ)
Underrated and possibly forgotten performance, but Diana Ross was up to the task and capably worked through a medley of 10 (ten!) hits. Don’t sleep on the classics.

8.) BRUNO MARS (w/ RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS)
SB XLVIII – Feb 2, 2014 – Reliant Stadium (Houston, TX)
Okay, younger artist with some hits but not quite the household name with some older viewers. By any measure, Bruno Mars nailed his performance. He can sing, he can dance, he can open the show with a drum solo, he brings a horn section, and then he has the Chili Peppers pop out of the stage floor to “givitaway givitaway give it away now.” Exhilarating and professional performance.

7.) ROLLING STONES
SB XL – Feb 5, 2006 – Ford Field (Detroit, MI)
At this point, the Rolling Stones are just game managers. Rock royalty just needs to show up, play a few hits, and fill the stadium with classic riffs. Oh, and do it on a stage shaped like the Stones’ lips/tongue logo.

6.) TOM PETTY & the HEARTBREAKERS
SB XLII – Feb 3, 2008 – University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, AZ)
Sandwiched around Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers solid (if unspectacular) performance of hits was the Patriots-Giants “Helmet Catch” game: a truly great Super Bowl, as well as a huge upset of an undefeated team. We don’t need always need guest rappers or genre-bending collaborations. (Aerosmith-Britney-N’Sync? No thanks.) Petty and his underrated band have been a radio staple for decades. Capable rock bands with good songs are like balanced football teams with good offensive lines.

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What If Jimi Hendrix Didn’t Die?

An awesome painting by David Choe

It’s always fun to think about various “what ifs?” in both pop culture and history. What if The Beatles didn’t break up? What if someone went back to 1931 Germany and killed Hitler? What if…

In an ode to Chuck Klosterman’s “What If Kurt Cobain Didn’t Die?” piece I am inclined to offer a timeline of events (mostly musical) that would have occurred if Jimi Hendrix didn’t die in 1970.

APRIL 1971
After the release of Cry of Love, in which Hendrix tried his best to fuse the Band of Gypsies with The Experience, Jimi’s manager Chas Chandler is contacted by Miles Davis. The two schedule a summer jam session at Electric Ladyland in New York City. The recording is never officially released but becomes a popular bootleg that shows Jimi moving into more toned down, yet improvisational-based funk style of playing guitar. There are talks of future sessions that would include Sly Stone, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Eddie Hazel.

JANUARY 1972
Jimi officially declares the end of The Experience after forgoing the release of First Rays of the New Rising Sun in favor of releasing an album and touring with Miles Davis. The album, Onyx, reaches #8 on the charts with a sound that Robert Christgau reported as, “a perfect blend of each virtuoso’s best elements: Jimi’s raw yet fluent guitar playing mixed with Mile’s sparse and moody tones.” Their back up band, consisting of Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Elvin Jones, and Stevie Winwood, tour America with Sly & The Family Stone as the opening act. Their single, “Broken Windows,” reaches the top ten in both America and England.

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The Death of Michael Jackson

So there was Johnny Carson doing his nightly show up in heaven. He was particularly giddy to have been recently reunited with longtime sidekick Ed McMahon. Then they were joined by the incomparable Farrah Fawcett. She was the hottest woman on the planet back when that title was only held by one person. Back before the internet and Maxim magazine plastered half-naked chicks all over the walls of society to the point that we stopped noticing. No, back then, it was just Farrah and that over-the-top white-tooth smile shining down from the infamous poster of her in that now-modest one-piece bathing suit.

Johnny was cracking jokes about yet another disgraced and disgraceful politician who’d cheated on his wife. This time another Republican who’d previously railed against gay marriage and how it would allegedly “destroy the sanctity of marriage.” Ha. Well that South Carolina Governor was soon the happiest man in the world: he was quickly pushed off the front pages. They say things come in 3’s, and sure enough right after Farrah and Ed had joined Johnny…the surprise musical guest showed up: Michael Jackson was dead at the age of 50.

I’ll never forget watching that Motown 25th Anniversary TV show when MJ and the Jacksons rocked the house and Michael in particular was off the hook, performing “Billie Jean” with that moonwalk and the other dance sequences. It was amazing.

Watching it now, he’s obviously lip synching. I can’t remember if I knew that then or even cared. His stage presence, the buzz from the crowd, the fact that he was basically just dancing and pretending to sing along with a pre-recorded track, and yet he connected with both the live audience and the TV viewers. That just doesn’t seem to happen like that anymore. People are spoiled. They DVR it or wait to catch it on youtube or they read on the internet ahead of time what songs will be performed. But that night we were all glued to the TV “live,” and the actual live audience was on their feet, clapping along, screaming at the very beginning like “holy shit we’re about to watch a dude who does what he does better than anyone does anything!” like Michael Jordan was about to hit the game winning shot or Joe Montana was gonna drive the 49ers down the field to win the Super Bowl.

And then, toward the end, he goes into some dance moves and all of a sudden he’s just inexplicably gliding backwards in that moonwalk. At the time it was like “WHAT? I didn’t know humans could do that!” It was like someone had just levitated on the street before our eyes. He even hit the moonwalk again a minute later. As if to confirm, yea, you saw that right…. I’m magically gliding backwards. And then eventually the track starts fading and he’s still sorta lip-synching along. Like they didn’t even need to try to pretend that it wasn’t a lip synch. Why bother. It didn’t matter. He’d nailed it.

I was never a big MJ fan per se…. certainly appreciated the hits from Off The Wall and Thriller (and of course the timeless Jackson 5 hits) as an impressionable young music fan at the time. So I’m not terribly sad or shocked today. I’ve made plenty of Jacko jokes in the past and perhaps will again in the future… but this isn’t really the time for that. It’s nice to reflect a bit on the talent that made him such a big deal before all the weirdness happened and the Thriller went from Bad to worse…

I recently saw the bust of O.J. Simpson at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was an amazing football player, but then he became O.J. from the movies and Hertz commercials, then the O.J. we all know and loathe now. Like different people. Similar type thing with Michael Jackson.

The Michael Jackson that everyone is remembering and celebrating today has actually already been gone for a long time.