By Steve Hochman
The choice for the No. 1 album of 2016 was pretty much set on Jan. 8. It was set in stone two days later, when we learned that the maker of that album had died. We had no idea that there would be so much more loss to come, not just among our “stars,” but in our lives. Even those of us acutely aware that the Boomer generation — my generation — had lodged itself squarely inside the mortality zone were overwhelmed, uncomprehending of the toll it would take on our individual and collective psyches. We held on so tenaciously to our youth, cherishing our toys and our heroes alike as we aged sometimes-not-so-gracefully, that this all messed up our sense of self, and sense of perspective.
There were certainly far greater tragedies in the world this year than the deaths of some pop stars, even the most poetic and impactful of them. And yet the works of some of them can help us regain that perspective, both on the small and big scales, if we let them. David Bowie and Leonard Cohen come to mind in particular for each of their album-for-the-ages with which they left us. In that perspective is a reminder that while we honor the dead, we should exalt the living. And in 2016 artists from across generations, across cultures, across perspectives, stepped forward with works of vital spirit that define the year, not just the bad but also much good, every bit as much as the work of those who left us.
David Bowie, “Blackstar.”
Oh I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me.
The Next Nine:
Adia Victoria, “Beyond the Bloodhounds”
From my review on KPCC’s Take Two: http://www.scpr.org/programs/take-two/2016/05/10/48678/new-music-from-adia-victoria-ravi-coltrane-and-mor/
This is dark, probing stuff, as the song titles indicate (“And Then You Die” is another). But it’s vibrant and vivid, threaded with a sense of her fighting personal and cultural bonds — she was raised in a strict Seventh Day Adventist family and the album title comes from Harriet Jacobs’ autobiographical 1861 novel “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Comparisons are tough here. She cites early blues-jazz star Victoria Spivey, and there are hints of a southern Patti Smith here (the spoken climax of “Invisible Hand”), a folky Nina Simone. But those are fleeting images, giving way to an artist taking her own path. If one song even comes close to capturing the whole, it’s the dense, banjo-accented, swamp-Gothic climax of “Stuck in the South.” Victoria Spivey by way of Flannery O’Connor? Or just Adia Victoria.
Xenia Rubinos, “Black Terry Cat.”
As the debate over just what, and who, is America only intensifies, there may be no sharper, more pointed, more witty, more forceful portrait than “Mexican Chef,” a new song by Brooklyn’s Xenia Rubinos. And more danceable.
Allen Toussaint, “American Tunes”
As pointed out in the astute liner notes by Tom Piazza, a New Orleans music critic, novelist and one of the writers on the HBO just-after-the-flood drama “Treme,” on one hand Toussaint brings a New Orleans tinge, with its subtle funk and delightful flourishes, to such jazz classics as Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” and Evans’ “Waltz for Debby” (somewhat perversely played in 4/4 rather than waltz-time), while transforming such New Orleans standards as Prof. Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and Earl King’s “Big Chief” (best known from Longhair’s repertoire) into elegant etudes and concisely imaginative sonatas.
The sequence unfolds like a vibrant novel or film. And at the end, Simon’s “American Tune” is epilogue. Here we get not just Toussaint’s piano, but finally his voice, too, conversational and eloquent with Simon’s portrayal of the complex cultural mix of our nation that brought about the music we’ve just heard, born of struggle and perseverance, of fears of dying and dreams of flying, of transitions and uncertainties, of destinations and destinies unknown. Toussaint brought it into his repertoire in the first few years after the flood, one of several New Orleans musicians who latched onto it as a song that expressed what they, and their city were experiencing as they fought to rebound and rebuild. Here, though, as many in New Orleans and beyond still mourn his loss, hearing him sing this caps this final album with a perfect measure of both celebration of a life of music and sadness at its ending. His life was a truly American tune. An American symphony.
From our year-end wrap-up on KQED’s The California Report. https://ww2.kqed.org/news/2016/12/18/from-anderson-paak-to-magikmagik-california-artists-defy-labels-in-2016/
Coverage of Anderson.Paak’s nomination for the Best New Artist Grammy this month often saw him called a rapper. But despite an association with Dr. Dre, his music more often than not isn’t rap. That’s abundantly clear not just on his bracing album “Malibu,” but in live performances including a delightful, playful NPR Tiny Desk Concert appearance, Paak on drums leading his sharp compact band the Free Nationals as they flow between soul and jazz and pop and rock, even surf, with grace and wit and a sense that anything is possible. EVERYTHING is possible. In what in many ways was a very tough year in the music world, a year filled with loss and sorrow, this is a positive note.
Shirley Collins, “Lodestar”
There is much sadness in the album, and much death — the traditional “Death and the Lady,” for which she’s done a “Seventh Seal”-inspired video, explicitly so. And she closes with “The Silver Swan,” a 17th century madrigal by Orlando Gibbons, in which the titular bird “thus sung her first and last and sung no more.” But in her song notes accompanying the album, Collins thinks back to nights in the early ‘50s at home in Hastings around the piano, singing that song with her sister and their mother, the three collapsing in laughter at their vain attempts to get through the intricate parts. The version here is sparer, just her voice, a harmonium and a viola. But for the song’s twilight melancholy, you can almost hear that laughter still in her voice these decades later.
Zomba Prison Project, “I Will Not Stop Singing”
Second volume from producer Ian Brennan’s recordings of inmates in the unimaginably horrible conditions of Zomba Central Prison in Malawi. “60 Minutes” reported on it in depth: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-grammy-nominated-music-zomba-prison-anderson-cooper/
Noura Mint Seymali, “Arbina”
From my BuzzBandsLA feature ahead of the Mauritanian artist’s Royce Hall show in March, which previewed several songs from this then-unreleased album: http://buzzbands.la/2016/03/03/noura-mint-seymali/
Her music is a swirling modern presentation of ancient Moorish griot sounds, with her forceful, trilling vocals weaving in the interlocking curls of her ardine (a nine-stringed harp reserved specifically for women) and swirling electric guitar lines of her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, along with pulsating bass and drums. It’s also to some extent an attempt to present something that represents a good deal of the country — not an easy task.
Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison, “In Movement”
Here, senses of space and atmospherics are key, Garrison’s subtle use of electronics and effects providing as much a signature to the trio sound as DeJohnette’s tuneful touch and Coltrane’s bright runs, at once wild and controlled. The interplay through a variety of tones and tempos, from the floating title piece to the stutter-funk pulse of “Two Jimmys,” is seamless, the three clearly mutually inspired. So here, more than 20 years after they first played together and more than 50 years since DeJohnette played with their dads, this trio feels like something new beginning, with wonderful possibilities in front of them.
Ruby Friedman Orchestra, “Gem”
You don’t need to know Ruby Friedman’s life story to get a sense of who she is. Just hearing her, and better seeing her perform, tell enough. Her voice and manner are as bold and brash as her flame-red hair. But she’s telling you anyway, with “Fugue in L.A. Minor,” the opening song of her long-in-coming first album, “Gem.” Part unflinching biography, part unapologetic confessional, the song briefly accounts various things on her road to this point, overcoming alcohol, having a child and giving her up among them. And she asked God, she tells us, “What am I doing here?” His answer: “Keep singing, well you better!”
It’s quite the curtain-raiser, fitting as what follows has some theatrical punch, Vaudevillian in some spots, Brechtian in others. Well, really it’s Vaudeville-y and Brecht-y, not fully either, or any one thing at any time. Bluesy also applies. Jazzy maybe. But brassy, always. Ethel Waters with a pinch of Ethel Merman — via Dusty Springfield and maybe even some Patti Smith.
Leyla McCalla, “A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey”
Dawes, “We’re All Gonna Die.”
My coverage of their Grammy Museum appearance: http://buzzbands.la/2016/10/29/dawes-new-sounds-spotlighted-vibrantly-grammy-museum-show/
Sturgill Simpson, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”
Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker”
Luisa Maita, “Fio da Memória”
La Santa Cecilia, “Buenaventura”
Rokia Traoré, “Né So”
Lucinda Williams, “The Ghost of Highway 20”
Esperanza Spalding, “Emily’s D+Evolution”
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, “A Man Alive”
Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool”
BuzzBandsLA concert review: http://buzzbands.la/2016/08/09/radiohead-fiiiiiine-shrine/
Nik Bartsch’s Mobile, “Continuum”