Well, it's been another year—blah-blah-blahbitty-blah. Ubiquitous, obligatory, pedantic and rote, the year-end wrap-up piece is also a wank. All year long, music critics foist our opinions upon you, the readers. Yes, it's our job. We're the arbiters, tastemakers, hipster elite, operating under some self-imposed mandate to tell you if somethin' rules or sucks. And you know what? We love it.
We fester to tell you about the discoveries we make in record stores or online—or in the press releases that fill our in boxes (we still get credit for those, right?). Sometimes it's because we believe we're ordained prophets of culture, but mostly it's because we like discussing our favorite thing with likeminded individuals. But year-end pieces, in many publications, aren't really the same thing.
The ones in bigger mags and papers are often written by a committee. Editors make a list, poll their contributors and refine their lists. There's pressure to maintain the illusion of authority, to demonstrate the accuracy of our goodness detectors and not miss anything that a rival publication wouldn't. Consequently, they can be samey and lame.
The best lists are the ones compiled by individual writers. The freelance warriors who dig through crates and jump feet-first into the Google rabbit hole for as long as it takes to find the song or album that gives us chills. So this year, City Weekly consulted our stable of tune addicts, giving them five categories plus one of their own choosing, and a scant 250-word limit to explain their choices—just to keep the wank from stretching on too long.
Best Album: Mitski, Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans). The oft-mercurial New York musician showed us a newfound vulnerability in her latest album. Thankfully, it did not cool Mitski's simmering disenchantment that still bubbles under the surface. It's a record for 2016 if there ever was one.
Best Local Album: Batty Blue, Peeling an Orange or Flattening a Sphere (Battyblue.Bandcamp.com). The Provo psych-folk band's first full-length is weird, fun and messy—and a little messiness from Provo is never a bad thing.
Best Show: Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. The roots music mainstays' show at The State Room in July was beautiful, fun and memorable. Their harmonies were so potent that they're still swirling around in my head five months later.
Most Impactful Loss: When Leonard Cohen died, it felt like a bit of our cultural capacity to self-examine and to tell ourselves the truth died with him. Leonard Cohen was great because he never let his shortcomings as a singer or performer keep him from putting his version of the truth out there, even if it sometimes took us a decade or so to fully appreciate it. Let's hope we're still able to now that he's gone.
The lyric that basically sums up 2016: "This is a low flying panic attack" (Radiohead, "Burn the Witch," A Moon Shaped Pool).
Best Album: Bill Pritchard, Mother Town Hall (Tapete). This British artist isn't all that well known at home, and he's almost unknown in the United States—but he's big in France! His wry wordplay and winning melodies are on par with the best from Lowe, Costello and Difford/Tillbrook.
Best Show: Esperanza Spalding at The Orange Peel in Asheville, N.C. This stunningly accomplished bassist/composer is nominally a jazz artist, but her tour in support of her fifth album Emily's D+Evolution (Concord) is a groundbreaking synthesis of funk, rock, soul, R&B, hip-hop and—most notably—dramaturgy. Spalding live onstage is like nothing else.
Most Impactful Loss: George Martin. Best remembered as the Beatles' producer, Martin translated the unschooled musicians' fertile ideas into workable—and consistently groundbreaking—sonic creations. Martin found success producing other artists as well, including America, Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick, Elton John and countless others.
Most Anticipated Release of 2017: Former Porcupine Tree leader Steven Wilson has a critically acclaimed body of solo work. For next September's follow-up to his masterful 2015 album Hand. Cannot. Erase. (Kscope), Wilson tells me in a Skype interview, "I plan on keeping things a little more concise and melodic this time ... and [concentrating] a little more on the songwriting."
Best Album: Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Columbia).
Best Local Album: It's a tie between Skozey Fetisch's Evidence (Resipiscent) and Purr Bats' 444 (8ctopus Records). My two picks are subversive in very different ways. After last year's Red Velvet Devil Worship (8ctopus Records), an attempt to exorcise religious demons, Purr Bats' 444 is comprised of explorations of vocalist Kyrbir Is-p's "Tornadic Temperament," as one song is titled. Skozey Fetisch's Evidence cassette, with its manipulated found-sounds, turns the listening experience on its ear with inexplicable snippets that are downright alien.
Best Show: The Legendary Pink Dots lived up to their name with their latest album, Pages of Aquarius (Metropolis), and their show is a psychedelic kaleidoscope, but I gotta go with Black Sabbath's farewell tour. Their massive presence and sound proved they're still masters of metal, the genre they invented.
Best Local Show: Iceburn reunion show, July 16. On the 20th anniversary of their key work Meditavolutions (Revelation Records) and their first new release in 17 years, The Heart of the Mountain Is a Fiery Phoenix (due in 2017), Iceburn's blend of industrial noise, metal and free jazz has never seemed more relevant.
Most Impactful Loss: David Bowie.
Best Local Music Community Activism: Rock for Standing Rock, a two-day event with local bands and artists at Diabolical Records a few weeks ago.
Best Album: Still Corners' Dead Blue (Sub Pop). You can feel the band's previously attached sonic shackles fall to the ground with every song on this miraculous album. It's innovative, nostalgic and a bit creepy all at the same time.
Best Local Album: Rumble Gums' Pool Party Palace. This ballsy release from the frenetic ensemble proves that locals can get just as weird as anyone from out of town. Think Mr. Bungle with more hip-hop.
Best Show: Ryan Adams at Red Butte Gardens. There aren't many artist/venue relationships that are as successful as the one Adams created with this beloved outdoor venue. His music pairs a little too perfectly with the setting sun and the cool mountain air.
Best Local Show: Hive Riot at Velour. They're a perfect mix of cutting-edge New York style and small-town dreams. It wasn't until I caught their album release show when I fully realized Provo's true role as a hotbed of dope-ass party music.
Most Impactful Loss: David Bowie. I know I'm not the only one that was impacted by his death. He blurred the lines between sci-fi, fantasy and music in a way that no one else ever could; and for that I'll always be grateful.
Best Soundtrack: Stranger Things Vols. 1-2 (Lakeshore) by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. Just as the Netflix breakout hit of 2016 functioned as a visual homage to '80s film, its synth-heavy score is equal parts John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream.
Best Album: Rod Stewart once told me, "I think it's bloody stupid to compare albums." Thanks for the opportunity to name-drop. I would say Aaron Lee Tasjan's Silver Tears was the biggest shocker because I had no idea who he was.
Best Show: Dawes' performance at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tenn., was so rousing, so infectious and so chock-full of great songs, that it became a veritable communal experience. Their latest album is oddly titled We're All Gonna Die (HUB), but regardless, what a way to go!
Most Impactful Loss: Paul Kantner, whose death seemed to be relatively obscured in the midst of the passing of such marquee artists as Bowie, Prince, Keith Emerson and Leonard Cohen. Kantner helped usher in the Summer of Love with the Jefferson Airplane, and with that feat alone became one of the most influential and important musicians of the '60s and beyond. Long may you soar, Paul.
Biggest Complaint: I continue to lament the loss of respect for the physical album and the ongoing inroads made by downloads and streams. Albums—whether CDs or LPs—are an art form, a physical achievement that's more than sound in cyberspace. It's the art, the graphics, the credits that underscore the sounds. Keep 'em coming.