The Best Music of 2016

My eighteen favorite records of 2016 feature a variety of styles, moods, and approaches. If nothing else, 2016 was good for showing the diversity of good music being made (and this list can, should readers be at all curious, traced to various times and places in my life). Click on each album title to hear selections from each record and instructions to support the musicians by purchasing their work.

bowie_blackstar-album-800x800For all the experimentation and genre-hopping David Bowie did over the years, he rarely (one 1985 collaboration with Pat Metheney aside) incorporated jazz into his records.

After a long hiatus, Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day drew upon work with many of his longtime collaborators to produce another rock album. In his late sixties, he seemed to establish a sound and way of approaching recording.

Which he immediately discarded. Beginning with one new track on his 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed, Bowie began working with Donny McCaslin and his band on recordings that reflected contemporary New York jazz. Thanks especially to drummer Mark Guiliana, the tracks on  are as fluid as any in Bowie’s catalog. The songs are dour, playful, skronky, and dramatic — all words that could describe tracks on Low, Diamond Dogs, or Scary Monsters — but approached with a freshness and vitality that promised a rich new chapter in Bowie’s career. Listening to this, I could easily imagine 70-year-old Bowie collaborating with Ingrid Laubrock, Tomas Fujiwara, or many of the thrilling improvisational musicians working in New York.

That will never happen. Bowie died two days after ‘s release. Listening in retrospect, this is obviously a farewell record from a man facing death with wry humor (the title track), fear (“Lazarus“), anger (the heartbreaking “Dollar Days“) and acceptance (“I Can’t Give Everything Away“). It is a magnificent exit, and in a year defined so many ways by loss, an easy choice for best record of the year.

wussy_forever_soundsChuck Cleaver’s made great records for a couple of decades (with the Ass Ponys’ Lohio being a particular highlight), and has just gotten better since he and Lisa Walker teamed up to lead Wussy. A theme in this year’s list is the strength of interdependent, democratic communication amongst highly accomplished, skilled people.  That theme runs through Wussy’s entire catalog, and the swirling guitars (including pedal steel) and vocals have never been stronger than they are here. Forever Sounds is heavier and more psychedelic than last year’s Attica! producing my favorite record involving Cleaver.

Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book (self-released)

chance_the_rapper_coloring_bookChance the Rapper captures the sounds of Chicago at a time and place as definitively as Donnie Hathaway did more than forty years ago. This is the Chicago of middle-class and working-class African Americans, of churches deeply rooted in neighborhoods, of friendship and collaboration amid injustice and tragedy. Just as the AACM represented some of the best and most distinctive aspects of the South Side half a century ago, Coloring Book does the same with local hip-hop. This is resilient and hopeful music that promises to be influential at home and across the country for years to come. I’m looking forward to hearing how he builds on this and hope he plays Comiskey Park a half dozen times a year every year.

Thalia Zedek Band, Eve (Thrill Jockey) | E, E (Thrill Jockey)

Zedek_Eve_Album_Cover.jpegA_Band_Called_E_Album_Cover.jpegIf one of the great singers and guitarists of the past thirty years is going to release two strong, distinctive albums four months apart, then both will find their way onto this list.

The Thalia Zedek band puts Zedek’s vocals to the forefront with arrangements including strings, piano, and her guitar. It’s a delicate, ravaged sound that would fit a play set in the late Weimar Republic perfectly. Zedek uses it to great effect, best so on the Hurricane Sandy-inspired “Afloat.”

E is a dual-guitar trio that manages to sound very little like Zedek’s most famous two-guitar band, Come. That’s down to both the democratic sharing of vocals and the interplay between her and Neptune’s Jason Sanford. Unlike, say, Creedence Clearwater Revival, when this band splits up the vocals nothing is lost (check out percussionist Gavin McCarthy’s singing on “Candidate“); this is an interdependent, fascinating, and original band.

Henry Threadgill’s Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi Recordings)

threadgill_old_locksThis is an unlikely Threadgill album to cite in a best-of list, in that he does not actually play a note on the record. But this four-part tribute to Butch Morris is vintage Threadgill in the writing, and he conducts a lively band featuring Jason Moran on piano and (as usual for Threadgill) buoyant tuba lines performed by Jose Davila. This is engaging, engaged, playful, and thoughtful. I love Threadgill’s process of composing and collaborating (as seen in this video from 2014), and Old Locks and Irregular Verbs represents this spirit even if the composer is not actually playing on it. Threadgill deserves all the recognition he is getting and here is a modest addition to the chorus of praise.

Mary Halvorson Octet, Away With You (Firehouse 12)

Halvorson Away With You.jpgSo, anyone who read my 2015 list knows what I think of Mary Halvorson as a guitarist and composer; her work with the Octet builds on Anthony Braxton’s approach and at times recalls the playful thoughtfulness of, yes, Threadgill’s work. I’ll just add that on this album she decided to add Susan Freaking Alcorn’s brilliant pedal steel guitar. This album came out a few weeks after I saw Alcorn blow away the crowd at the Dead C’s Brooklyn show and made me feel grateful to live in a city with such a thriving improv scene. THESE ARE TWO OF THE BEST GUITARISTS ALIVE WORKING TOGETHER WONDERFULLY.  Those of you who have the opportunity to hear Halvorson perform should not waste it; those in other cities have many, many outstanding recent recordings to enjoy and this is a magnificent introduction.

the rutabega, Unreliable Narrator (Comedy Minus One)

rutabega_unreliable_narratorthe rutabega is two men, helped out on occasion by a friend or two, maybe a family member on a couple of tracks. I mention this because a casual listen to their records would make you think they were one of those bands like Arcade Fire that has more members than some census tracts have people. This is down to their superb sense of dynamics, producing both long and short songs as cinematic as any produced this century by a rock band. Amazingly, they retain the atmospherics and grandeur of the record in concert, and should be seen live if you have the opportunity.

Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Columbia)

cohen_darkerUnlike his labelmate David Bowie, Leonard Cohen did not keep his physical decline a secret. In interviews for You Want It Darker, his musings on his health and mortality meant his November death was sad but not a shock. A happier development was his collaboration with son Adam, resulting in one of the best-arranged records of his career, mixing guitars, choirs, and orchestral flourishes with the synthesizers that have structured much of his music since his hair turned grey. Like Bowie, Cohen managed a pretty splendid swan song (granted, this is the most gravel-voiced swan to ever sing).

Robbie Fulks, Upland Stories (Bloodshot)

Fulks_Upland-Stories.jpgPeople, if you are not already convinced of Fulks’s brilliance as a writer, arranger, or guitarist, I don’t know if I can convince you here that he is one of the great country singers of the past forty years. (No, he’s not quite that old. Yes, I moved the goalposts so as to rank him with the legends cranking out gold in the Seventies.) Upland Stories continues the quieter, more acoustic and reflective approach of much of his past decade. In some respects, these songs combine the seriousness of Couples in Trouble with the bluegrass Fulks used to perform with Special Consensus.

Mint Mile, The Bliss Point (Comedy Minus One)

MintMile_Bliss.jpgTim Midyett’s second EP since putting Bottomless Pit on hiatus rocks a little harder than last year’s In Season & Ripe and, on “Park,” has a new take on the jangle and twang of Gene Clark’s best work. I would not mind at all if the steel guitar approach on this EP anchors Mint Mile’s sound the way Bottomless Pit built its sound around Tim’s baritone guitar, but I am also happy to enjoy the sonic variety Mint Mile has already provided.

Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man) 

price_farmerI did not know Price before hearing her on TV this spring. About thirty seconds into her performance of “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” I knew I needed to hear the whole album. She’s an excellent singer, with a great band behind her, and Midwest Farmer’s Daughter shows she’s a fine writer as well. I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.

 

 

SAVAK, Best of Luck In Future Endeavors (Comedy Minus One)

SAVAK_luck.jpgSAVAK is a virtuosic and adaptable rock band from Brooklyn whose debut record ought to appeal to anyone who knows what the names Graham Maby or Greg Sage represent. Neither of those gentlemen is in SAVAK, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear otherwise. (The band consists of veterans of Obits and the Make Up, if that helps set your expectations.) Of all the records on my list this year, this is the one that most blatantly straddles the divide between noisy rock and pop hooks.

The Cell Phones, No (No Trend Records)

Cell_Phones_No_Album.jpgYes this just came out. Yes I am confident calling it one of the best records of 2016, in part because I’ve been hooked on the two advance singles “You Make Me Say No” and “Lake Shore Drive” for a while. This Chicago trio has everything a great rock band needs and nothing it does not, and their second LP has slicker production than 2013’s Get You Alone did. It matters not; the songs are as strong as Lindsey Charles’s voice, which is to say, Pretty Damned Strong. The trio continues to waste no time getting down to business rocking out. Not to be missed live or on record.

The Flat Five, It’s a World of Love and Hope (Bloodshot/Augiedisc)

flatfive_hopeKelly Hogan’s entire catalog is a singing masterclass. She possesses sufficient talent to be called Diva, yet one of the reasons her music is so good is she is as skilled a collaborator as she is a lead vocalist.

That’s a good way to introduce this supergroup she’s in with Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Alex Hall, and Casey McDonough. The Flat Five focus on Chris Ligon’s compositions, and the result is a bizarro world’s Fifth Dimension of pop virtuosity and odd songs. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and is also a great deal of fun.

Fake Limbs, Matronly (Don Giovanni)

fakelimbs_matronlyOK, this and the Flat Five record sound nothing alike. But they both have charismatic singers and waste no time grabbing your attention. Fake Limbs are louder, noisier, and manage to both supply your USDA supply of feedback and title a song after my favorite Raymond Carver collection of stories. Not to mention my favorite song title of the year: “hotdoghotdoghot.”

 

 

The Dead C, Trouble (Ba Da Bing!)

dead_c_trouble_albumThis is a smoother transition from the last record, as Fake Limbs and the Dead C both revel in noise. The comparison ends there because Fake Limbs veer much closer to the Jesus Lizard’s rock textures and Bruce Russell, Michael Morley, and Robbie Yeats are New Zealand’s foremost practitioners of feedback-drenched drone.

To get through 2016 required the relentless pounding that marked the Xpressway label’s best records; label founder Russell and his colleagues come through with Trouble, a double album consisting of five numbered tracks of nasty racket. Even with Yates absent from this autumn’s United States tour, this music proved incredibly powerful in concert. The album retains that intensity.

Oren Ambarchi, Hubris (Editions Mego)

ambarchi_hubris_albumConcluding the list with more Antipodean instrumental guitar music (I didn’t splurge for Roy Montgomery’s box set, otherwise three such releases might have made this list), but Hubris has less emphasis on the noise than you’ll find with the Dead C. Not no emphasis on noise, but the result is closer to Ambarchi collaborator Jim O’Rourke’s layered, melodic work while employing more synthesizers and electronic percussion than you would find on O’Rourke’s own records. In two long (and one fairly short) parts, Hubris builds a hypnotic atmosphere that abruptly ends in an amusing way. I find it useful to listen to when exercising.
 Again, check the links for information on purchasing these fine records and compensating their creators. I thank all the musicians for helping make 2016 a little better.

Time Feature on America Recycles Day

recycle-logoNovember 15 is America Recycles Day, so I am popping in late with a link to Time magazine’s feature on the history of recycling, featuring interviews with Susan Strasser, Bartow Elmore, and me.

Readers interested in the themes of this article may find expansion on several points in my book Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (Rutgers UP, 2005).

Holiday Wish List

presentsAs someone with a birthday this time of year, and with Christmas and Hannukkah approaching, I am asked what presents I would like.

This, then is a shameless and public plea for presents. Many, many presents. I am greedy for presents this year. Well, two presents, that I want hundreds of times over. Here is my list:

Donations to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC is “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.”

It is also made up of some of the most courageous, patriotic Americans that exist. We are indebted to the work they do identifying violence against our people and working for a better society. If you want to give me presents, consider donating to SPLC.

Donations to the American Civil Liberties Union. “For almost 100 years, the ACLU has worked to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

The President-elect has made several statements over the past year that run counter to constitutional readings of the First Amendment. The ACLU will be very busy in 2017. If you want to give me presents, consider donating to the ACLU.

These are not the only presents that would be really great — I can think of quite a few more. If you indulge my greed for presents, feel free to click on those links and give, give, give for the holiday season.

November 8.

On Nov. 8, 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187. Spurred on by Gov. Pete Wilson and the media demonizing Hispanics, Prop. 187 sought to prohibit undocumented immigrants from using a wide range of public accommodations, including non-emergency medical care and public schools.

It passed by 1.5 million votes. In California.

The man whose signature appears on my college diploma led the fight to pass it. I see his signature every time I look up at my office wall. His xenophobia, echoed so much over the past year, is something I can never forget.

Today, though, that means something different to me than it did 22 years ago. Actions produce reactions. Prop. 187 destroyed the Republican Party in the home state of Ronald W. Reagan and Richard M. Nixon.

Actions produce reactions. In the wake of being demonized, Hispanic Californians mobilized, registering voters and running for office on the local, state, and national levels. Some of the results were quick: 1996’s election saw Orange County voters toss out “B-1” Bob Dornan in favor of second-generation American Loretta Sánchez. Others took more time, but today, all statewide officials and large majorities of the state legislature are Democrats. The one Republican elected governor since Pete Wilson was an immigrant who had a much different view of immigrants than Wilson did.

Loretta Sánchez lost her race this week. Not a race for re-election, but a race to succeed Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate. Rep. Sánchez was defeated by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat and the child of immigrants from India and Jamaica. The two finalist for the senate seat were both Democrats, both women, both children of immigrants. That contest reflects the state’s politics now as Prop. 187 reflected the state’s politics in 1994.

I am not saying history will repeat. I am not saying what has happened here this week does not have potentially grave consequences. But I am saying that the progressive, inclusive political culture of California in 2016 was not always there. It was forged in opposition to hate, and in organizing to defeat the agents of hatred.

This is what comes to mind every time I see Gov. Wilson’s name on my wall. It is what is on my mind today.

The end of a book.

It may be my training in history, or my love for a well-written obituary, but when I get deep into writing a book I start thinking about how close to a finished product the book would be if I got hit by a truck today.

“Is this pretty much in shape so readers will have a good idea of what I was trying to do?”

“Could an editor clean up what remains? What do I want to change?”

This week, those morbid questions are put to rest on Aluminum Upcycled. I have corrected the proofs and approved the index. Images are in place, as is the cover. Whatever trucks have in store, this book is as I intended it. Thanks to all at Johns Hopkins University Press as they prepare Aluminum Upcycled for 2017 publication.

zimringposted

Return to Bubbly Creek (UHA Chicago, October 2016)

conferenceThe Urban History Association meets in Chicago this month, so what better place to discussion the urban environment of Chicago? I’ll be participating in a roundtable discussing Dominic Pacyga’s recent book Slaughter House: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made.

The area in question involves the “great open sewer” of Bubbly Creek. My colleague in urban environmental experiences Mike Bryson and I have written about Bubbly Creek in the past and it is a safe bet that I’ll bring that waterway up during our discussion.

Upcycling History Talk in Kalamazoo, Sept. 29

zimringpostedI’m spending time this month reviewing the galleys of my forthcoming book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective. At the end of the month, I will discuss aspects of the book at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. (Since some of the book covers Herman Miller’s work down the road, WMU is an appropriate place to discuss upcycling.)

“The Road to a Zero-Waste Future Through the Past? Sustainable Design Strategies in Historical Perspective”

Environmental historian and author Dr. Carl Zimring will explore “upcycling” (transforming discarded material into goods of elevated worth). Starting with aluminum, and its history in Michigan, this presentation will roam through the centuries and across the globe, landing on adidas’s recent plan to turn oceanic plastic garbage into upscale running shoes.

WHERE: 1028 Brown Hall, WMU
WHEN: Thursday, September 29, 2016 at 7:00 p.m.
COST: FREE