Author Archives: Carl Zimring

About Carl Zimring

I study junk and talk trash. Author of Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America and general editor of The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage.

The World Says You’re Seen.

The World Says” is unusual. Karl Hendricks recorded albums almost always as a trio, and 2007’s The World Says is the only album by the four-piece Rock Band. On a record informed by Crazy Horse’s guitar duels, the title track stands alone as a piano and (mostly) acoustic guitar musing. Here’s the first verse:

When I showed up from Bermuda
They didn’t act surprised
When I threw myself in front of a train
They pulled me back, said “Not this time.”
And when I joined the Army
They didn’t give away my LPs
I licked the inside of a urinal
They just blessed my sneeze
If you’ve ever tried to disappear
Then you’ll know what I mean
You keep insisting you’re invisible
The world says you’re seen

Some songs show their value through sales; Billy Ray Cyrus grew wealthy from “Achy Breaky Heart” years before his daughter became a celebrity. Other songs show their value in resonance to the listener. “The World Says” is one of those songs, for me.

The summer of 2007 found me traveling to Seattle to help my Uncle John. He had gone there to see if an experimental trial could arrest his mantle cell lymphoma. John endured two years of treatments and this was his last best hope. We met with nutritionists, therapists, and doctor after doctor to get him ready for the trial, but the cancer was too advanced to let him proceed. He was gone within four weeks.

I did not find comfort in much at the time, but “The World Says” was therapeutic when I felt powerless. I am forever grateful to Karl for giving me that.

Karl died this morning. If you did not know him, his modesty and kindness belied his talents. He spend more than a quarter century as a buyer at and owner of Pittsburgh’s best record store, enhancing the musical literacy of so many of us who lived in western Pennsylvania. Karl Hendricks was as much a civic leader of Pittsburgh during that time as anyone, without even considering the music he created.

If you did not know his music, you can learn about some of the best rock music made the past quarter century and give some money to his family by purchasing his records from Bandcamp or Comedy Minus One. They are all worth it, from the cover art to the guitar playing to Karl’s lyrics.

Karl’s writing is better than anything I can provide, so please listen to him instead of me. When he sold his store last summer, I posted a list of favorite songs of his and repeat that list now as entryways into his catalog. Thanks always to Karl.

10. “Know More About Jazz.”
9. “Baseball Cards.”
8. “Underdog Park.”
7. “Naked and High on Drugs.”
6. “The Ballad of Bill Lee.”
5. “The Official Shape of Beauty.”
4. “The Mens’ Room at the Airport.”
3. “Nogales By Tuesday.”
2. “The World Says.”
1.”Dreams Ha.”
(This link is the only one on the list not to one of the Bandcamp pages. It opens a solo video Karl made in 2011. More on why it tops the list here.)

All Labor Has Dignity

MLKMarch_on_WashingtonToday, we observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I want to observe this day with a reminder of Dr. Martin Luther King’s quest to ensure that all workers’ dignity be respected.  This post includes material from Chapter 8 of my book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States.

The Memphis sanitation workers strike is remembered most frequently as part of the series of events that led to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in that city in April 1968. The site of that national tragedy, the Lorraine Motel, is now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum. Yet while Dr. King’s death is an understandably dominant aspect to the historical memory of the Memphis strike, historians, labor, and at least one national politician also focus, as Michael Honey’s magnificent book Going Down Jericho Road shows, on why the strike happened, and on its effects on labor, race, and the environment in the United States.

The event that triggered the strike took place on February 1, 1968. Two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were on a garbage truck. By “on,” I mean they were riding on the back of the truck as was procedure in Memphis’s Department of Public Works. In a pouring rain, the two men tried to take cover as best they could by climbing onto a perch between a hydraulic ram used to compact the garbage and the inner wall of the truck. Somewhere along the drive, the ram activated, crushing the two men to death. One had tried to escape, but the mechanism caught his raincoat and pulled him back to his death.

The deaths angered union organizer T.O. Jones, who called them “a disgrace and a sin.” In the days ahead, workers, local clergy such as James Lawson, and union activists mobilized to demand safer work conditions, better pay, and the right of union representation. When Echol Cole and Robert Walker died, a movement was born.

In reality, though, those men’s deaths merely were the culmination of decades of subjugation, made worse by recent worsening of treatment by the mayor’s office. The subjugation was not simply of working people, but of African Americans. In Memphis, African Americans were the sanitation department — more than 1,300 black workers, some who grew up in the city, others who had left the crushing poverty of the cotton fields in Mississippi, picked up the garbage and yard wastes of all Memphians.

Effective sanitation services are vital to all cities, but the sanitation department in Memphis has a special place in that city’s history. Memphis, a hot humid city, suffered from epidemic diseases as it grew in the mid-nineteenth century. Yellow fever almost wiped the city off the map in the 1870s; after thousands died, more fled, and almost every person who stayed became infected in 1878, the state of Tennessee repealed the city’s charter. The creation of the Sanitation Department under Col. George Waring in order to build modern sewers, pick up garbage, keep the streets clean and reduce the presence of infectious materials in the community as much as possible literally saved Memphis in the 1880s. (Waring later revolutionized New York City’s streets and sanitation department. His work protected hundreds of thousands of lives and established the model of modern municipal sanitation in the United States that we enjoy today, but that is a story for another time.)

Though the work was vital to the city’s well-being, it was dangerous, brutal, and ill-paying. The workers were not respected by their employers, or by many of the residents and businesses who benefited from waste removal. Aside from the hazards the trucks posed, sanitation workers had to handle all sorts of materials from tree limbs to broken glass to biological wastes that could infect, poison, or injure them. In the Memphis summers, this work was conducted under temperatures regularly exceeding 90 degrees often without shade or breaks to get water. Winter conditions were such that the risk Cole and Walker took in that truck seems understandable in context. Sanitation workers could be maimed at any time, and crippling injuries were common. Once disabled on the job, the worker had little recourse for compensation and was vulnerable to a life of poverty.

This was work white people in Memphis considered beneath them. The city found this out the hard way when it tried to recruit whites to fill the jobs during the strike. In Memphis, the necessary, vital work of keeping the neighborhoods clean was not respected by the government, nor by most of the citizens. It was dirty work, done by inferiors as far out of sight and out of mind as possible. Even as garbage piled up, the city (and in particular the staunch anti-union Mayor Henry Loeb) demeaned the workers as infantile and disrespectful, treatment that inspired the proud, defiant strike slogan: I AM A MAN!

I AM A MAN!

memphisstrikeIt needed to be shouted, it needed to be repeated on hundreds of tongues and hundreds of signs. It needed to be said over and over, because it was believed by too few. Too many in February of 1968 took for granted and demeaned the people who made their lives better. As all residents of Memphis quickly learned, the work was necessary to their quality of life, and tensions rapidly escalated just days into the standoff.

The strike quickly became a national focal point for labor activism and civil rights. Memphis’s churches and local NAACP chapter saw it as the launching point to address the systemic ills of segregation plaguing the city. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), caught by surprise by the sudden walkout, saw it as an opportunity to unionize municipal workers in a city that had resisted unionization. Dr. King saw the strike as an ideal forum for his Poor People’s Campaign, as he had in recent months pushed the notion of economic opportunity as crucial to the realization of civil rights now that voting rights had received federal protection.

The timeline of events in the strike that lasted from February to April is too rich to recount in a diary: AFSCME has a brief chronology online, but a true appreciation of the diverse interests and activists brought together in Memphis requires a longer read. I recommend (again) reading Michael Honey’s Going Down Jericho Road to gain an appreciation of why thousands of people in Memphis and nationwide mobilized as a result of the strike. It is as engrossing and moving as any American history book I have read in the past decade, and Honey articulates why so many people were spurred to take action despite the risks.

The labor action that resulted faced many problems. The local media, sympathetic to to the mayor, branded the strikers as shiftless and Communist. The city’s refusal to negotiate sparked a consumer boycott of Memphis businesses, and as tensions escalated, so did the city’s willingness to suppress the movement with violence. A march on March 28 was broken up with violence and tear gas, leading to the death of a 16-year-old boy named Larry Payne at the hands of the police. Dr. King’s reputation suffered because of this march with critics mocking his calls for nonviolent activism as hollow. Picketing continued after the march was broken up, but under conditions that belied America’s reputation as a free society. The city’s stance against the strike was literally militant, forcing picketers to march in single file in the wake of overwhelming security.
Memphis strike 2

Dr. King regrouped to speak at one more rally in early April, delivering the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech that serves as the culmination of his life’s work. The speech should be read (or better yet, heard) unabridged to appreciate Dr. King’s call to economic and nonviolent action, but a brief quote makes clear he understood the stakes in the charged atmosphere of Memphis:

The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that….

Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together….

And they were telling me, now it doesn’t matter now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us, the pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

We know what happened the next day. When Americans hear the words “MLK” and “Memphis” together, minds inevitably turn to the details of Dr. King’s death. Too often, though, we forget what Dr. King was doing in Memphis (and that his death effectively ended the strike as the city recognized the union’s right to exist in the wake of the overwhelming grief and rage that gripped the nation). We forget how the events of early 1968 reflected his concerns not just at the end of his life, but how they represent what he had fought to accomplish in the previous decade and what challenges remained for Americans that April.

Today, the Memphis strike is part of the lexicon of American politics. AFSCME proudly places the strike in a central place in the union’s history, as its website indicates. The union’s depiction of this part of its history puts workers in the forefront of the history of the civil rights movement, and civil rights activists in the forefront of the labor movement. As David Roediger has discussed, such a relationship was not always possible in American history, but it is part of the dream Dr. King explicitly hoped for in the weeks before his death.

The union is not alone in depicting the Memphis strike as a crucial uniting of the labor movement and the civil rights movement. When speaking to the AFSCME National Convention in August 2006, Senator Barack Obama invoked memories of the strike in his vision of 21st-century activism:

In the middle of the last century, on the restless streets of Memphis, it was a group of AFSCME sanitation workers who took up this charge. For years they had served their city without complaint, picking up other people’s trash for little pay and even less respect. Passers-by would call them “walking buzzards,” and in the segregated South, most were forced to use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms.

But as the civil rights movement gained steam and they watched the marches and saw the boycotts and heard about the passage of voting rights, the workers in Memphis decided that they’d had enough, and in 1968, over 1,000 went on strike.

Their demands were simple. Recognition of their union. The right to bargain. A few cents more an hour.

But the opposition was fierce. Their vigils were met with handcuffs. Their protests turned back with mace. One march was interrupted by police gunfire and tear gas, and when the smoke cleared, 280 had been arrested, 60 were wounded, and one 16-year old boy lay dead.

And still, the city would not give in.

Now, the workers could have gone home, or they could’ve gone back to work, or they could’ve waited for someone else to help them, but they didn’t. They kept marching. They drew ministers and high school students and civil rights activists to their cause, and at the beginning of the third straight month, Dr. King himself came down to Memphis.

At this point, the story of the sanitation workers merges with the larger saga of the Civil Rights Movement. On April 3rd, we know that King gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon. On April 4th, he was shot and killed by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. And on April 8th, a day before he was buried, his wife Coretta led the sanitation workers on one final march through the city of Memphis – a march that would culminate in the union contract that the workers had sought for so long.

This is the legacy you inherit today. It’s a legacy of courage, a legacy of action, a legacy of achieving the greatest triumphs amidst the greatest odds. It’s a story as American as any – that at the edge of despair, in the shadow of hopelessness, ordinary people make the extraordinary decision that if we stand together, we rise together.

What those workers made real in Memphis – and what we have to make real today – is the idea that in this country, we value the labor of every American. That we’re willing to respect that labor and reward it with a few basic guarantees – wages that can raise a family, health care if we get sick, a retirement that’s dignified, working conditions that are safe.

Today, forty-eight years after the strike, its imagery has been embraced by our president. Though demonized by the municipal government in Memphis, and investigated by the police and FBI, the power of the movement in the streets has influenced those seeking power in the halls of Washington.

Despite AFSCME’s efforts and this rhetoric, much work remains to ensure “wages that can raise a family, health care if we get sick, a retirement that’s dignified, working conditions that are safe.” Today, people of color continue to make up a disproportionate amount of the labor force handling Americans’ waste. Though most communities do not have equipment as dangerous as the truck that killed, the work remains fettered with hazards. Too often we keep the people who do this important work out of sight and out of mind. It is altogether too common that the waste facilities we use taxpayer money to build and manage, whether they are garbage incinerators, sanitary landfills, hazardous waste dumps, or recycling sorting facilities, are placed in communities of color where not only the workers who handle the hazards of disposal are affected, but the sounds, smells, and toxins that may be released affect neighboring residents. Though the strike in Memphis addressed several concerns, many of the injustices that led to the strike are common aspects of the American landscape, years after all of the strikers have retired, and many — including T.O. Jones, who died too young in 1981 — have passed away.

Moreover, contempt for the people who perform the dirty work necessary to keep our streets, homes, and workplaces endures. This week, Donald Trump will be sworn in as President of the United States. During one of the 2016 presidential debates, Hillary Clinton raised Trump’s insult of Latina beauty pageant winner Alicia Machado as “Miss Housekeeping” as an example of his intersectional bigotry towards women and Hispanics. That Trump demeaned Machado by associating her identity with domestic cleaning work reveals the power of how work, whiteness, and waste have intertwined in American society. The events in the presidential elections that brought the United States’ most explicit symbol of white identity politics to the White House show the enduring influence of white supremacy on how we see and shape our waste management practices. Sixty-three million Americans voted to elect Trump president despite his overt racism. Trump’s words are crude, but reflect how expressions of white identity in the twenty-first century result from how we have normalized waste work as nonwhite work over the past two centuries. Confronting this history is an important step in dismantling the enduring structures of environmental racism.

The injustices are still in place today, but one change over the past forty-nine years is a recognition of how widespread those injustices are. Fourteen years after Memphis, an African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina decided it would not stand for a PCB dump to be placed next to their homes and they laid down on the road in front of bulldozers to prevent the digging. These Americans made history as the first people in the United States to be arrested preventing the construction of a dump.

The residents of Afton, North Carolina failed to prevent the dump’s siting, but in the months and years that followed, the environmental justice movement emerged to fight back against the decades of discrimination that made shunting the dirty work of garbage collection to blacks “normal” in Memphis. The rhetoric and tactics used in the Memphis strike influenced the activism of the environmental justice movement. Though that movement has evolved and grown over the past quarter century, it owes debts to the sanitation workers who decided that enough was enough in February of 1968.

Today, let us remember that forty-eight years ago, several hundred such people rose up for respect, for dignity, and for a more just society. Let us remember the sacrifices of Dr. King, yes, but also of Echol Cole, of Robert Walker, of Larry Payne. Let us remember the courage and resolve of T.O. Jones and every preacher, every union member, every activist, and every person who worked to bring a measure of justice to Memphis. Let us remember, and let us try to use their example to make our own communities more just today and in the days ahead.

Coming in 2017: Aluminum Upcycled.

zimringpostedThis year, Johns Hopkins University Press is publishing my book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective. It is available for pre-order now, with shipping sometime in February. From the press:

Beginning in 1886 with the discovery of how to mass produce aluminum, the book examines the essential part the metal played in early aviation and the world wars, as well as the troubling expansion of aluminum as a material of mass disposal. Recognizing that scrap aluminum was as good as virgin material and much more affordable than newly engineered metal, designers in the postwar era used aluminum to manufacture highly prized artifacts. Zimring takes us on a tour of post-1940s design, examining the use of aluminum in cars, trucks, airplanes, furniture, and musical instruments from 1945 to 2015. 

By viewing upcycling through the lens of one material, Zimring deepens our understanding of the history of recycling in industrial society. He also provides a historical perspective on contemporary sustainable design practices. Along the way, he challenges common assumptions about upcycling’s merits and adds a new dimension to recycling as a form of environmental absolution for the waste-related sins of the modern world. Raising fascinating questions of consumption, environment, and desire,  Upcycling Aluminum is for anyone interested in industrial and environmental history, discard studies, engineering, product design, music history, or antiques.

This was a fun book to research, allowing me to combine discussions with my colleagues at Pratt with explorations of many “covetable” goods, including furniture by the Eames Office, Herman Miller, and Emeco, vehicles by Ford, Honda, Porsche, and Aston Martin, and guitars by Travis Bean, John Veleno, Wandre Pioli, and Kevin Burkett’s Electrical Guitar Company (among others).

I plan on giving a few talks about the book this spring. If you would like to schedule one, contact me at czimring “AT” pratt “DOT” edu.

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.