Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Contrarian's Favorite Music of 2016

My appetite for new music is as strong as when I started buying albums and 45s at the age of 8 (I think it was a Monkeys album). Now, after 48 years that have included acquiring some 2,000 albums, 1,500 CDs, and a private 22,000 track digital database (and now streaming services), there’s no denying that my new favorites reflect I’m in my mid-50s and gravitating toward music that echoes the sounds I grew up with.

C. W. Stoneking: Gon’ Boogaloo
As a kid, I hated the blues, even dismissed Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Texas Flood” when it came out during my college years (it would later become one of my favorite albums).  Now, other than Americana, blues is generally what I listen too. C.W. Stoneking’s latest album speaks to those preferences.

Upon first listen to Gon’ Boogaloo, you might think you’re hearing a long lost 1950s gem recorded on primitive equipment, showcasing an overlooked Chicago or Delta bluesman. But Stoneking is a white Australian and the album was recorded in 2015. This album is a buoyant celebration of roots blues.

The song that first grabbed me was The Thing I Done. Its rhythm says ska, but the raw power of the feral guitar snarls the blues. The call and response of Tomorrow Gon' Be Too Late will easily put a big fat smile on your face, and while the chirpy female harmonies opening Good Luck Charm are reminiscent of early ‘60s girl groups, Stoneking’s voice arrives to steer the vibe toward gospel. The Zombie, is a fun number that should make your Halloween playlist. And the final track, We Gon’ Boogaloo truly could have been recorded in the mid-‘50s, a rock n’ roll rollercoaster delight about the giddy pleasure of buying a new record that makes you wanna dance. And this one certainly does!

Jayhawks: Paging Mr. Proust
My first introduction to the Jayhawks was in 1995 with their now signature song Blue, back in the days when we called their sound “Alt-Country.” And though nowadays they’re categorized as “Americana,” many thought the groups’ best days lay back in the 90s and early 2000s. Their last reunion in 2011 resulted in Mockingbird Time, a huge disappointment. So I wasn’t expecting much. But Paging Mr. Proust ranks in the top 3 albums of the Jayhawks 30-year output. It finds frontman Gary Louris catching a 2nd wind in mid-life, regaining his song writing, singing and guitar playing pinnacle. It’s simply astonishing to find a group well past its prime producing like a band half its age and eager to make a statement.

In the late ‘90s the band left behind their raw, stripped down, folk-rock picking and added polish to the songwriting and production. In doing so, they created a sound on albums like Smile and Rainy Day Music that would have put them on top 40 radio and on arena tours had they been a band of the 1970s. This newest effort is in that vain; harmonies that are at times romantic, then melancholy, then soaring, and guitar driven songs that could be strumming, sing-along soft rock, like Lovers Of The Sun and Pretty Roses In Her Hair, or grinding, feedback blowouts like Lost The Summer and Ace.  

Louris’s reenergized songwriting is crystalized on The Devil Is in Her Eyes. It's like he's fallen in love long after losing his innocents, elated to find such joy is still possible. Over an infectious jingle-jangle guitar, his strident tenor calls:

"Hail stones and butter scotch,
Firewalls and forget-me-nots,
Baby won’t you take a chance on me.
Heels dug in and braced to fall,
Hung my holster on your wall,
Baby won’t you take a chance on me.”

And as the song’s chorus arrives you’ll be cranking up the volume just when the band’s signature harmonies lift it to a new high that soon gets punctuated by a blistering guitar solo.

This was the soundtrack of my 25 mile summer bike rides in the Hoosier countryside in 2016.

Hinds: Leave Me Alone
Speaking of young bands eager to make a statement . . . This lo-fi, garage rock, girl group from Madrid, Spain got noticed by lots of music fans this year. Their debut album, Leave Me Alone captures a unique style that is at once familiar, and yet totally their own. Quite a feat for young rookies. The sassy/half-drunk vocals and surf-guitar echo paints the picture of a band literally learning their craft in the garage, and spilling some beer along the way.

The track Bamboo is a great place to start, and follow that with Chili Town. Also worth a listen, just to get a sense of their depth, is the instrumental surf-ballad Solar Gap. Will be fun to see where these girls go next.

Great Songs & Honorable Mention:
-The Cactus Blossoms: Another band with a retro sound. In this case, think Louvin & Everly Brothers. Their album, You’re Dreaming has flashes of brilliance, including the title track and Travelers Paradise. If you like those, try their remake of the Beatles’ This Boy.
-Sturgil Simpson: I wanted to like the entire A Sailor's Guide To Earth album from this renegade alt-country hero, but the Jerry Reed-esque jive-country-funk that finds it’s way into a few songs just doesn’t work for me - like a dude who shows up at your 2016 party wearing clogs and bell bottoms. It just doesn't feel right. But there are true gems included, like Breakers Roar, Sea Stories, All Around You, and the inexplicably brilliant Nirvana cover, In Bloom. I won't spend much time listening to the whole album, but onto my Americana playlist those happily 4 songs go.
-Ray LaMontange: I just can’t get into LaMontange’s recent attempts at the blues, but half of his 2016 album Ouroboros is wonderfully atmospheric. It’s another half great album. Try In My Own Way and Another Day.
-Emeli Sande’s song, Breathing Under Water: Because I’m a sucker for a good pop anthem.
-Wildfire by Mandolin Orange is a brilliant, beautiful song.

My favorite concert moments of the year include Shovels and Rope opening for Jason Isbell in a smallish theater show in Indianapolis. It was my 3rd Isbell concert and he didn’t disappoint. The Shovels and Rope set was marred by sound issues, but they powered through it admirably. Isbell is at the top of his game, at his writing and performing prime. His confidence and showmanship are exhilarating!

My wife and I on the Ferris Wheel. In the distant background
The Who were opening their show with Substitute.
In October we flew to Palm Springs for Desert Weekend. I’m generally impatient with oldies shows, but I’d never seen the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney. Over 3 nights all the acts but one put on stellar shows. While I actually love Bob Dylan’s blues outfit in smaller venues, it didn’t work at this massive festival with 100,000+ in attendance looking to take a walk down memory lane. This moment called for big sounds and crowd-pleasing, not self-indulgent noodling. This was the event that called for Dylan to do what he has no intention whatsoever of doing - play a guitar and sing Blowing In The Wind and Like a Rolling Stone, straight, so the audience could recognize them.

The Stones understood this, following Dylan with a rousing, high-energy show that included only one song from their new blues album (they knew it was also no time to promote unknown music). The next night both Neil Young and McCartney wowed with lots of big hits and highly professional backup bands. Young opened with a perfect acoustic set, then brought on his full band, nearly outshining McCartney. On Sunday night The Who surprised by providing my favorite performance of the weekend. Townsend and Daltry have still got it and know how to build tension and deliver big payoffs.

I left Desert Weekend marveling at how far concert events have come since my first concert (Chicago, at the Indiana State Fair) in 1975. The promoters managed to bus over 100,000 people out into the desert and provide ample, 1st class food and drink venders and clean, plentiful restroom facilities over the course of 3 days. Astounding!

Buy Kurt's latest novel The Salvage Man

“Kurt Meyer’s The Salvage Man is a gentle Midwestern fantasy made up of one treasure after another. Part historical fiction, part love story, and part rumination on modern day life, this novel asks hard questions about the world we live in and the world we leave behind. I couldn’t put it down.”
Larry D. Sweazy, author of A Thousand Falling Crows

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard

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